Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church

March 18

Today is the feast day of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem.  Ora pro nobis.

by Fr Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877


St. Cyril, Bishop and Patriarch of Jerusalem, is justly honored and esteemed by the Catholic Church as one of the holiest and most learned defenders of the faith against the heretics, both by his sermons and writings. He was born of Catholic parents and piously brought up. In the reign of Constantine the Great, to escape the dangerous occasions of sin, he entered a monastery, where he led a most edifying life. In later years, owing to his great reputation for learning and sanctity, he was chosen patriarch of Jerusalem. In this exalted station he displayed the zeal and courage of an apostle. He took under his special care those whose instruction in the mysteries of the faith was defective. He was vigilant in defending the Catholic doctrine and refuting the errors of the heretics. The Arians were protected by Constantius, the successor of Constantine on the throne, and they therefore oppressed and persecuted the Catholics in every possible manner. The Holy Bishop opposed the impious followers of Arius with all his might, and was not in the least disturbed by their threats. His tenderness towards the poor was that of a kind father. At that time, a famine spread over the land, and fell most severely on the indigent. The compassionate Bishop offered all his revenues for their relief; but this was not sufficient; his kind heart being moved by the sufferings of the famishing people, he sold gold and silver vessels for bread. This act of charity served his enemies later as a subject of accusation.

It was also during his occupation of the episcopal chair, that a wonderful apparition of the Holy Cross took place. On the Feast of Pentecost, a cross, surrounded by great light and of extraordinary size, was seen over Mount Calvary. It was perceived by all the inhabitants, Christians as well as Jews, and it filled all with terror. St. Cyril minutely described the apparition, and sent the report to the Emperor, admonishing him to adhere more sincerely to Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for us, and to desist from his protection and patronage of the enemies of Christ. The holy Bishop, on the feast of the Holy Cross, took that occasion to encourage and strengthen the Catholics in their faith and to refute the errors of the Arians, who, enjoying the favor of the Emperor, everywhere had the upper hand. This, however, served only to embitter the heretics against St. Cyril. They called a council composed entirely of Arian bishops, before whom the Saint was accused of sacrilege, because he had, as we related, sold the sacred vessels and other things belonging to the church. The heretics condemned St. Cyril, deposed him from his See and sent him into banishment, replacing him by Heraclius, an arch heretic. Acacius, a sworn enemy of the Saint, commended this unjust sentence to the Emperor for approval, and the holy Bishop was compelled to go into exile. Some years later, this sentence was revoked by a lawful council of the Church, and Cyril reinstated in his patriarchal chair. But he was again driven away. Finally, the Saint vanquished all his enemies, and governed his diocese in peace and with apostolic zeal.

After the death of Constantius, the imperial sceptre devolved on Julian the Apostate. He was favorable, not only to the heretics but also to the Jews, and was a most deadly foe to the Catholics. It was his intention to cover the Christians with confusion, by proving that Jesus was false in his prediction about the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem. With this object in view, he commanded the Jews to rebuild the temple, offer up the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and observe the other rites and ceremonies of the Law. To defray the expenses, he furnished a large sum of money. The Jews, transported with joy at these orders, earnestly applied themselves to the restoration of the old temple. They had already raised the walls to a considerable height, when St. Cyril,came and, looking at their labors for a while, said: “Not one stone will remain on the other, for Christ has foretold it, and He cannot fail.” The Jews laughed at the holy Bishop, but the sequel proved the truth of his words. The following night a destructive earthquake not only threw down the partly raised walls, but also ejected the very foundations and scattered them all over the ground. But this was not the end. As the Jews rushed together, and with grief and terror beheld the ruin of their work, a fire descended from heaven which consumed the tools and all the materials. Others say that a subterranean fire burst forth from the earth and injured many hundreds of the Jews. But a still more remarkable prodigy is recorded. On the following day small luminous crosses could be noticed on the garments of the Jews, which could be washed away neither by water nor by any other means. Such striking wonders brought many of the unbelievers to the true faith, but others were only hardened in their infidelity.

St. Cyril lived for some years after this event, and had the consolation of seeing the throne occupied by the virtuous Theodosius after the decease of the impious Constantius, Julian and Valens. Now he could govern his diocese in peace. In 386 the Lord was pleased to call to his heavenly reward this valiant defender of Catholic truth. All who knew him could not sufficiently admire the heroic patience with which he bore the many tribulations and persecutions suffered for the sake of the true faith. His writings supply the defenders of Catholic doctrine, even at the present day, with the most powerful weapons against the Calvinistic and Lutheran heresies. For these writings prove that there is a vast difference between the doctrine taught and believed in the time of St. Cyril, and those which non-Catholics now-a-days profess; though in their simplicity the latter pretend that there is a perfect agreement between the articles of their faith and those of the first ages of the Church. (1)

Champions of Catholic Orthodoxy

Cyril was born at or near the city of Jerusalem, about the year 315. He was ordained priest by St. Maximus, who gave him the important charge of instructing and preparing candidates for Baptism. This charge he held for several years, and we still have one series of his instructions, given in the year 347 or 348. They are of singular interest as being the earliest record of the systematic teaching of the Church on the Creed and Sacraments, and as having been given in the church built by Constantine on Mount Calvary. They are solid, simple, profound; saturated with Holy Scripture; exact, precise, and terse; and, as a witness and exposition of the Catholic Faith, invaluable.

On the death of St. Maximus in 350, Cyril was chosen Bishop of Jerusalem. At the beginning of his episcopate, a prodigy was seen which the faithful regarded as a presage of victory over the Arian heretics. St. Cyril gave an account of it to the Emperor Constantius: “On the nones (or 7th) of May, about the third hour (9:00 am), a vast luminous body, in the form of a cross, appeared in the heavens, just over the holy Golgotha, reaching as far as the holy mount of Olivet, seen not by one or two persons, but clearly and evidently by the whole city. This was not, as may be thought, a momentary transient phenomenon; for it continued several hours together visible to our eyes, and brighter than the sun, the light of which would have eclipsed it, had this not been stronger. The whole city, struck with a reverential fear tempered with joy, ran immediately to the church, young and old, Christians and heathens, citizens and strangers, all with one voice giving praise to Our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, the Worker of miracles; finding by experience the truth of the Christian doctrine, to which the heavens bear witness.” He concludes his letter with his wishes that the Emperor may always glorify the holy and consubstantial Trinity — an important clause, since the Emperor favored the Arians. It proves that St. Cyril, although respectful toward the Emperor, did not approve of his heresy.

Sometime later the heretical archbishop of Caesarea accused St. Cyril of squandering the goods of the Church. Indeed our Saint had, during a time of great famine in Jerusalem, sold some of the Church plate to relieve the wants of the poor. The heretic had St. Cyril exiled, but he was hospitably accepted by the bishop of Tarsus. Unfortunately, this bishop later fell into heresy, giving further rise to false accusations against our Saint.

Upon the death of Constantius, in 361, Julian the Apostate, in hopes of seeing the Christians more bitterly divided, allowed all the banished bishops to return to their sees. Julian realized that violent persecutions had only strengthened the Christian Faith; so he sought by intrigue to weaken and discredit the Faith. This he attempted to do by a project of rebuilding the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, which he supposed would prove Christ wrong. Julian interpreted the prophecies of Christ and Daniel to have predicted not only the temple’s destruction, but also its final ruin and desolation. St. Cyril, however, confidently predicted that the Emperor’s project would fail; indeed, that it would fully fulfill Christ’s prophecy that there would not remain one stone upon another — since the work would entail demolishing what was left of the old Temple’s foundation. The Jews, being reluctant to take money from a Gentile, began to finance the work themselves with great enthusiasm. The Emperor spared no efforts to execute the work; he drew workmen from all quarters, placing at their head his intimate friend Alypius. Many Jews and pagans were confident and boastful of the end of Christianity. It was about this time that the Jews demolished the great church of Alexandria, two more at Damascus, and others elsewhere. But all was in vain. Repeated earthquakes destroyed the first efforts to dig a new foundation. Then… but let us hear what Julian’s close friend, Ammianus, had to say in his report to the Emperor:

“And when Alypius the next day earnestly pressed on the work, with the assistance of the governor of the province, there issued such horrible balls of fire out of the earth near the foundations, which rendered the place, from time to time, inaccessible to the scorched and blasted workmen. And the victorious element continuing in this manner obstinately and resolutely bent, as it were, to drive them to a distance, Alypius thought proper to give up the enterprise.” Other prodigies were reported by numerous reliable sources, including a repetition of the luminous cross in the heavens — testified to by St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and many others.

St. Cyril was reportedly condemned to death by the Emperor, but Julian died first. His successor, Valens, was an Arian and had our Saint banished again. In 378, Emperor Gratian commanded the sees to be restored to those Bishops in communion with Pope Damasus. St. Cyril found his flock miserably divided by heresies and schisms under the spiritual wolves, to whom they had fallen prey; but he continued his labors and tears among them. In 381, he assisted at the General Council of Constantinople, in which he condemned the Semi-Arians and Macedonians, whose heresies he had always opposed. He had governed his see eight uninterrupted years from the death of Valens, when, on May 18th, 386, he passed to a glorious immortality, in the 70th year of his age. (2)

Image: Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, 14th Century (9)

Research by REGINA Staff


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