Today is the feast day of Saint Hilary. Ora pro nobis.
Dom Prosper Gueranger
After having consecrated the joyous Octave of the Epiphany to the glory of the Emmanuel Who was manifested to the earth, the Church—incessantly occupied with the Divine Child and His august Mother, during the whole time from Christmas Day to that whereon Mary will bring Jesus to the Temple, there to be offered to God, as the law prescribed—the Church, we say, has on Her Calendar of this portion of the year the names of many glorious Saints, who shine like so many stars on the path which leads us, from the joys of the Nativity of Our Lord, to the sacred mystery of Our Lady’s Purification.
And firstly there comes before us, on the very morrow of the day consecrated to the Baptism of Jesus, the faithful and courageous Hilary—the pride of the Churches of Gaul, and the very worthy associate of St. Athanasius and St. Eusebius of Vercelli in the battle fought for the Divinity of Christ. Scarcely were the cruel persecutions of paganism over, when there commenced the fierce contest with Arianism, which had sworn to deprive of the glory and honors of His Divinity that Jesus Who had conquered, by His Martyrs, the violence and craft of the Roman Emperors. The Church had won Her liberty by shedding Her blood, and it was not likely that She would be less courageous on the new battlefield into which She was driven. Many were the Martyrs that were put to death by Her new enemies—heretical “Christian” Princes: it was for the Divinity of that Lord, Who had mercifully appeared on the earth in the weakness of human flesh, that they shed their blood. Side by side with these stood those holy and illustrious Doctors, who, with the martyr-spirit within them, defended by their learning and eloquence the Nicene Faith, which was the Faith of the Apostles. In the foremost rank of these latter we behold the Saint of today, covered with the rich laurels of his brave confessorship, St. Hilary: who, as St. Jerome says of him, was brought up in the pompous school of Gaul, yet had culled the flowers of Grecian science, and become the Rhone of Latin eloquence. St. Augustine calls him the llustrious Doctor of the Churches.
Though gifted with the most extraordinary talents, and one of the most learned men of the age, yet St. Hilary’s greatest glory is his intense love of the Incarnate Word, and his zeal for the liberty of the Church. His great soul thirsted after martyrdom, and by the unflinching love of truth which such a spirit gave him, he was the brave champion of the Church in that trying period when that Faith, which had stood the brunt of persecution, seemed to be on the point of being betrayed by the craft of Princes, and the cowardice of temporizing and unorthodox Pastors.
Let us listen to the short Life of the Saint, contained in the Lessons of the Divine Office:
St. Hilary was born of a noble family in Aquitaine, and was distinguished for his learning and eloquence. He was married, but the life he led was almost that of a monk, so that later, on account of his great virtues, he was made Bishop of Poitiers, and so well did he discharge the Episcopal office as to be the object of the deepest veneration on the part of the faithful. At that time the Emperor Constantius was inflicting every sort of harsh treatment, intimidation, confiscation of their property, and banishment, on the Catholics who refused to side with the Arians. St. Hilary set himself as a bulwark against the Arians, thereby bringing on himself all their fury. On this account they many times sought to ensnare him, and at length, by the treachery of Saturninus, the Bishop of Arles, he was banished from the Council at Beziers into Phrygia. There he raised a dead man to life, and wrote his twelve books on the Trinity, against the Arians.
Four years later, a Council was called in Seleucia, a town in Isauria, at which St. Hilary was compelled to assist. Thence he set out for Constantinople, where, seeing the extreme dangers to which the true Faith had been exposed, he petitioned the Emperor, by three public petitions, to grant him an audience, in order that he might obtain permission to hold a controversy with his adversaries concerning matters of Faith. But Ursacius and Valens, two Arian bishops, whom Hilary had refuted in his writings, were afraid of allowing so learned a man to continue there any longer, and persuaded Constantius to restore him to his Episcopal See, under the pretence of showing him honor. Then did the Church of Gaul open her arms, as St. Jerome says, to receive St. Hilary on his return from battle with the heretics. St. Martin, who was afterwards Bishop of Tours, followed the holy Doctor to Poitiers; how much he profited by the instructions of such a master is evidenced by the sanctity of his later life.
From that time, he was left in perfect peace in the government of the Church of Poitiers. He led the whole of Gaul to condemn the blasphemies of the Arians. He composed a great many exceedingly learned books, of which St. Jerome says, in a letter to Laeta, that they may be all read without the slightest fear of meeting any false doctrine in them; he assures her that she may run through the books of St. Hilary without stumbling upon anything dangerous. He passed from this earth to Heaven on the Ides of January (the 13th), during the reign of the Emperors Valentinian and Valens, in the year of Our Lord 369. St. Hilary was called by several Fathers and Councils an illustrious Doctor of the Church, and was publicly honored as such in certain dioceses. At length, at the petition of the Council of Bordeaux, the Supreme Pontiff Pius IX, after having consulted the Sacred Congregation of Rites, declared him to have been justly called, and to be in effect, a Doctor of the Church; and ordered that on his Feast all should recite the Mass and Office of Doctors.
Thus did the holy Bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, receive the honors of the Church’s love for his having so courageously, and even at the peril of his life, fought in defence of the great Mystery. Another of his glories is that he was one of the most intrepid champions of that principle, which cannot be compromised without the vitality and very existence of the Church being endangered— the principle of the Church’s liberty. A short time ago we were celebrating the Feast of the holy Martyr, St. Thomas of Canterbury; today, we have the Feast of the glorious Confessor, whose example enlightened and encouraged him in the great struggle. Both St. Hilary and St. Thomas à Becket were obedient to the teaching left to the Pastors of the Church by the Apostles; who, when they were arraigned the first time before the authorities of this world, uttered this great maxim: We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5: 29). The Apostles and the Saints were strong in the battle against flesh and blood, only because they were detached from earthly goods, and were convinced that the true riches of a Christian and a Bishop consist in the humility and poverty of the Manger, and that the only victorious power is in the imitation of the simplicity and the humility of the Child that is born unto us. They relished the lessons of the School of Bethlehem; hence no promise of honors, of riches, or even of peace, could make them swerve from the principles of the Gospel.
How dignified is this family of Soldiers of Christ, which springs up in the Church! If the policy of tyrants, who insist on being Christians without Christianity, carry on a persecution in which they are determined that no one shall have the glory of Martyrdom—these brave Champions raise their voice and boldly reproach the persecutors for their interference with that liberty which is due to Christ and His Ministers. They begin by telling them their duty, as St. Hilary did to Constantius, when he sent him his first Memorial: “My Lord and most gracious Augustus! Your admirable prudence will tell you that it is unreasonable and impossible either to force submission on men who resist you with all their strength, or to compel them to take part with the sowers of the seed of false doctrine. The one end of your endeavors, wise counsels, government and vigilance should be that all your subjects may enjoy the blessings of liberty. There is no other means of settling the troubles of the state, or of uniting what discord has separated, than that everyone be master of his own life, unconstrained by slavish compulsion. You should not turn a deaf ear to the voice of any subject who thus appeals to you for support: ‘I am a Catholic; I will not be a heretic. I am a Christian, and not an Arian. I would rather lose my life than allow the tyranny of man to corrupt the purity of my Faith’.”
When some people spoke to St. Hilary in favor of those who had been traitors to the Church, and had been disloyal to Jesus Christ, in order to keep in the good graces of the Emperor, they ventured to tell the Saint that their conduct was justifiable, on the ground that they had only obeyed the Law! The holy Pontiff was indignant at this profanation of the Word, and in his Book against Auxentius, courageously reminds his fellow Bishops of the origin of the Church: how Her very establishment depended on the breaking of unjust human laws, and how She counts it one of Her glories to infringe all such laws as would oppose Her existence, Her development, and Her action:
“We have a contempt for all the trouble that men of these days are giving themselves; and I am grieved to see them holding such mad opinions as that God needs man’s patronage, and that the Church of Christ requires to be upheld by an ambition that curries favor with the world. I ask of you Bishops, what favor did the Apostles court, in order that they might preach the Gospel? Who were the princes that helped them to preach Christ, and convert almost the whole world from idolatry to God? Did they, who sang hymns to God in prisons and chains, and whilst bleeding from being scourged—did they accept offices from the state? Did St. Paul wait for a royal permission to draw men to the Church of Christ? Did he, think you, cringe for the patronage of a Nero, or a Vespasian, or a Decius, whose very hatred of our Faith was the occasion of its being more triumphantly preached? These Apostles, who lived by the labor of their own hands, who asembled the faithful in garrets and hiding-places, who vistited villages and towns, and wellnigh the whole world, traveling over sea and land, in spite of the senate’s decrees and imperial edicts—these men, according to your principles, had not received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven! What say you to all this manifestation of God’s power in the very face of man’s opposition, when the more there was a prohibition to preach Christ, the more that preaching was exercised?”
But the time came at last to speak to the Emperor himself, and to protest against the system whereby he aimed at making the Church a slave; then did St. Hilary, who was exceedingly gentle in dispostion, put on that holy indignation which Our Lord Himself had, when he scourged the profaners of His Father’s House, and drove them out of the Temple. He braved every danger, and held up to execration the system invented by Constantius for insulting and crushing the Church of Christ. Let us listen to the language of his apostolic zeal:
“The time for speaking is come, the time for silence is past. Let Christ now appear, for Antichrist has begun his reign. Let the Shepherds give the alarm, for the hirelings have fled. Let us lay down our lives for our sheep, for thieves have gotten into the fold, and a furious lion is prowling around it. Let us prepare for martyrdom… for the angel of Satan hath transformed himself into an angel of light…
“Why, O my God, didst thou not permit me to confess Thy Holy Name, and be the minister of Thine Only-Begotten Son, in the times of Nero or Decius? Full of the fire of the Holy Ghost, I would not have feared the rack, for I would have thought of Isaias, how he was sawn in two. I would not have feared fire, for I would have said to myself that the Hebrew Children sang in their fiery furnace. The cross and the breaking of every bone of my body should not have made me a coward, for the good thief would have encouraged me, who was translated into Thy Kingdom. If they had threatened to drown me in the angry billows of the deep ocean, I would have laughed at their threats, for Thou hast taught us, by the example of Jonas and St. Paul, that Thou canst give life to Thy servants even in the sea.
“Happy I, could I thus have fought with men who professed themselves to be the enemies of Thy Name; everyone would have said that they who had recourse to tortures, and sword, and fire, to compel a Christian to deny Thee, were persecutors; and my death would have been sufficient testimony to Thy Truth, O God! The battle would have been an open one, and no one would have hesitated to call by the honest name these men that denied Thee, and racked and murdered us; and Thy people, seeing that it was an evident persecution, would have followed their Pastors in the confession of their Faith.
“But nowadays, we have to do with a disguised persecutor, a smooth-tongued enemy, a Constantius who has put on Antichrist; who scourges us, not with lashes, but with caresses; who instead of robbing us, which would give us spiritual life, bribes us with riches, that he may lead us to eternal death; who thrusts us not into the liberty of a prison, but into the honors of his palace, that he may enslave us: who tears not our flesh, but our hearts; who beheads not with a sword, but kills the soul with his gold; who sentences not by a herald that we are to be burnt, but covertly enkindles the fire of Hell against us. He does not dispute with us, that he may conquer; but he flatters us, that so he may lord it over our souls. He confesses Christ, the better to deny Him; he tries to procure a unity which shall destroy peace; he puts down some few heretics, so that he may also crush the Christians; he honors Bishops, that they may cease to be Bishops; he builds up churches, that he may pull down the Faith…
“Let men talk as they will, and accuse me of strong language and calumny: it is the duty of a minister of the truth to speak the truth. If what I say be untrue, let me be branded with the name of an infamous calmniator: but if I prove what I assert, then I am not exceeding the bounds of apostolic liberty, nor transgressing the humility of a successor of the Apostles by speaking thus, after so long observing silence… No, this is not rashness, it is Faith; it is not inconsiderateness, it is duty; it is not passion, it is conscience.
“I say to thee, Constantius, what I would have said to Nero, or Decius, or Maximian: you are fighting against God, you are raging against the Church, you are persecuting the saints, you are hating the preachers of Christ, you are destroying religion, you are a tyrant, not in human things, but in things that appertain to God. Yes, this is what I should say to thee as well as to them; but listen now to what can only be said to thyself: thou falsely callest thyself Christian, for thou art a new enemy of Christ; thou art a precursor of Antichrist, and a doer of his mystery of iniquity; thou, that art a rebel to the Faith, art making formulas of faith; thou art introducing thine own creatures into the sees of the Bishops; thou art putting out the good and putting in the bad… By a strange ingenious plan, which no one had ever yet discovered, thou hast found a way to persecute, without making Martyrs.
“We owe much to you, Nero, Decius, and Maximian! Your cruelty did us a service. We conquered the devil by your persecutions. The blood of the holy Martyrs you made has been treasured up throughout the world, and their venerable relics are ever strengthening us in faith by their mute unceasing testimony… But thou, Constantius, cruel with thy refinement of cruelty, art an enemy that ragest against us, doing us more injury, and leaving us less hope of pardon… Thou deprivest the fallen of the excuse they might have had with their Eternal Judge, when they showed Him the scars and wounds they had endured for Him, for perhaps their tortures might induce Him to forgive their weakness. Whereas thou, most wicked of men, thou has invented a persecution which, if we fall, robs us of pardon, and, if we triumph, does not make us Martyrs! …We see thee, ravenous wolf, under thy sheep’s clothing. Thou adornest the sanctuaries of God’s temples with the gold of the State, and thou offerest to Him what is taken from the temples, or taxed by edict, or extorted by penalty. Thou receivest Priests with a kiss like that which betrayed Christ. Thou bowest down thy head for a blessing, and then thou dost trample on our Faith. Thou dost dispense the clergy from paying tributes and taxes to Caesar, that thou mayest bribe them to be renegades to Christ, foregoing thy own rights, that God may be deprived of His!”
Glorious St. Hilary, thou didst well deserve that the Church of Poitiers should, of old, address to thee the magnificent praise given by the Roman Church to thy illustrious disciple, St. Martin: “O blessed Pontiff, who with his whole heart loved Christ our King, and feared not the majesty of emperors! O most holy soul, which, though not taken away by the sword of the persecutor, yet lost not the palm of martyrdom!” If the Palm of a Martyr is not in thy right hand, yet hadst thou a Martyr’s spirit, and well might we add to thy other titles, of Confessor, Bishop and Doctor, the glorious one of Martyr, just as our Holy Mother the Church has conferred it upon thy fellow-combatant, St. Eusebius, who was but Martyr in heart like thyself. Yes, thy glory is great; but it is all due to thee for thy courage in confessing the Divinity of that Incarnate Word, whose Birth and Infancy we are now celebrating. Thou hadst to stand before a Herod, as had the Magi, and like them thou hadst no fear; and when the Caesar of those times banished thee to a foreign land, thy soul found comfort in the thought that the Infant Jesus, too, was exiled into Egypt. Oh that we could imitate thee in the application of these Mysteries to ourselves!
Now that thou art in Heaven, pray for all true Catholics, that they may be firm in the Faith, and may study to know and love Jesus, our Emmanuel. Pray that God may bless His Church with Bishops powerful in word and work, profound in sacred science, faithful in the guardianship of that which is entrusted to them, and unswerving defenders of ecclesiastical liberty. (1,6)
The best edition of his numerous and remarkable writings is that published by Dom Constant under the title: “Sancti Hilarii, Pictavorum episcopi opera, ad manuscriptos codices gallicanos, romanos, belgicos, necnon ad veteres editiones castigata” (Paris, 1693). The Latin Church celebrates his feast on 14 January, and Pius IX raised him to the rank of Doctor of the Universal Church. The Church of Puy glories in the supposed possession of his relics, but according to one tradition his body was borne to the church of St-Denys near Paris, while according to another it was taken from the church of St-Hilaire at Poitiers and burned by the Protestants in 1572. (4)
Image: The ordination of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, circa 14th century (8)
Research by REGINA Staff