Praised by Gregory of Nazianzus as a pillar of the Church and the epitome of virtue, Saint Athanasius stood as a beacon of light amidst the tumult that sought to engulf the Christian world of his day. Born in or near Alexandria sometime between 293 and 298 A.D., his later writings reveal that he was likely afforded an excellent education, in no small part due to his proximity to that great intellectual and commercial hub of the Greco-Roman world. As a young man, he served as secretary and deacon of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and it was in this capacity that Athanasius would first emerge on the ecclesiastical stage.
In 325 A.D., Emperor Constantine I summoned the bishops to a great council in the city of Nicaea to discuss the teachings of the Alexandrian presbyter Arius: the heretical belief that the Son was made and is neither eternally begotten nor of the same essence as the Father. The young deacon Athanasius accompanied Bishop Alexander to the Council and skilfully defended the Orthodox position against the Arians. Soon after the events of Nicaea, Athanasius was elected to succeed his beloved mentor and aged predecessor as Patriarch of Alexandria. Though the Arians were defeated at Nicaea, many influential figures within the Roman world persisted in promulgating that heretical persuasion. Consequently, Athanasius was destined to spend over seventeen years in five exiles ordered by four different Roman Emperors, in addition to the numerous occasions on which he was forced to flee Alexandria to escape those plotting his death.
Notwithstanding the hardships that earned him the title ‘Contra Mundum’ (against the world), Athanasius still managed to visit many of the churches in his territory and establish contacts with the monks and hermits of the desert. His biography of Antony the Great was widely read in his own day and greatly promoted the idea of Christian monasticism throughout the Church. In addition, his surviving letters and treatises are a testament to his literary and theological genius, studied and appreciated to this day.
In early 366 A.D., Athanasius returned to Alexandria and spent his final years repairing and rebuilding in the aftermath of the Arian storm. Having appointed his successor (Peter II), Athanasius died peacefully in 373 A.D., surrounded by his clergy and faithful supporters.
“The greatest man of his age and one of the greatest religious leaders of any age, Athanasius of Alexandria rendered services to the Church the value of which can scarcely be exaggerated, for he defended the faith against almost overwhelming odds and emerged triumphant.” Butler’s Lives of the Saints