Anyone who has achieved something significant knows the feeling of having set himself against the world to do it. Athanasius was one of those people in Christian history, and really world history. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes about Athanasius and why he’s worth paying attention to for his faith, his sheer resiliency, and his incredible grit:
Whether history judges the record of Christian discipleship in our own country a success or a failure finally depends on us—clergy, religious, and laypeople—and how zealously we live our faith; how deeply we believe; and how much apostolic courage we show to an unbelieving world that urgently needs Jesus Christ. We American Christians have far more freedom to live and preach our faith than do Christians in nearly any other nation. And God will hold us accountable for how we use it.
We live in a confused time, with deep anxieties even within the Church. But we’ve been here before. The Nicene Creed emerged largely from one of the most hotly contested gatherings in the life of the Church: the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was a meeting marked by fierce conflict between leaders of orthodox Christian belief and leaders of the Arian heresy—a heresy that appealed to many of the learned, comfortable, and powerful.
The Council of Nicaea could have failed. It, and all the long history that followed it, could have turned out very differently. It didn’t, because of one man—a young deacon and scholar (and later bishop) named Athanasius. Earlier this week, on May 2, Western Christians celebrated the feast of this man, whom we now remember as one of the greatest bishop-saints in history. His episcopal see was the city of Alexandria in modern Egypt. And his life is a lesson for all of us in the years ahead.
Athanasius fought for the true Christian faith at Nicaea and throughout his career. Arian bishops excommunicated him. Emperors resented him. His enemies falsely accused him of cruelty, sorcery, and even murder. He was exiled five times, for a total of seventeen years, and survived multiple assassination attempts. And in the face of it all, he became the single most articulate voice defending the orthodox Christian faith, which is why even today we remember him as Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius against the world.”
He had courage. He had the truth. He fought hard for it. He never gave up. And in the end, the truth won. The faith we take for granted today, we largely owe to him.