Champions of Catholic Orthodoxy

St. Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop & Doctor (†444, Feast—February 9)

Council of Ephesus

An ancient depiction of the Council of Ephesus. St. Cyril is seated at the right hand of the Emperor;
the condemned heretics are crawling away.

I will put enmities between thee and the Woman, and thy seed and Her seed; She shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for Her heel (Gen. 3: 15). These words, addressed to the serpent in the days which the Church now seeks to bring before the minds of Her children, have dominated the world's history. The woman, who was the first to fall victim to Satan's deceits, was, in Mary, the first to rise. In Her Immaculate Conception, in Her Virginal Motherhood, in Her offering of the New Adam to God on the mount of expiation, the New Eve made the enemy of mankind feel the power of Her victorious foot; and so the rebel angel, who by man's complicity has become the prince of this world, has never ceased to direct, against the Woman who has triumphed over him, the united forces of his double empire, the legions of Hell and the children of darkness. Mary in Heaven continues the conflict She began on earth. As Queen of the Blessed Spirits and of the children of light, She leads to battle as one army the heavenly hosts and the battalions of the Church Militant. The triumph of these faithful soldiers is that of their Sovereign Lady—it is a continual crushing of the head of the father of lies by the defeat of error and the exaltation of truth, the victory of the Divine Word, Who is both Son of Mary and Son of God.

But the connection between the victory of the Divine Word and the triumph of His glorious Mother has never been more manifest than in the combats sustained by the Pontiff whom we are to honor today. St. Cyril of Alexandria is the Doctor of the Divine Maternity, as his predecessor St. Athanasius was that of the Consubstantiality of the Word. The dogma of the Incarnation is founded upon these two ineffable mysteries, which they confessed and defended in two succeeding centuries. As Son of God Christ must be consubstantial with the Father, for the infinite simplicity of the Divine Essence excludes all idea of division. To deny the unity of substance and principle in Jesus, the Divine Word, was to deny His Divinity. As Son of Man, as well as true God of true God, Jesus was to be born on earth of a daughter of Adam, and yet in His Humanity be still one Person with the Word. To deny the personal union of the two natures in Christ was again equivalent to denying His Divinity; it was also equivalent to declaring that the Blessed Virgin Mary, who until then had been honored as having given birth to God in the nature which He assumed for our salvation, was only the mother of a man.

Three centuries of persecution had not been able to wring from the Church a denial of the Divinity of Her Spouse. But hardly had the world witnessed the triumph of the Incarnate Word, when the enemy turned the victory to his own advantage. Profiting by the new position of Christianity and its security from public violence, he sought to win in the domain of false science the denial which had been refused him on the field of martyrdom. Apostasy did less to serve the hostile influence of the serpent and foster the growth of his accursed race than the bitter zeal of heretics for the reform of the Church's Faith.

Arius was the first of these teachers of the doctrines of Hell—a worthy first in his pride. He carried his questionings into the very depths of the Divine Essence, and rejected consubstantiality on the evidence of texts which he misunderstood. Upheld principally by the powers of this world, Arianism fell at the end of the century, having no root but its recently converted nations who had not had to shed their blood for the Divinity of the Son of God.

It was then that Satan produced Nestorius, crowned with a fictitious halo of sanctity and knowledge. This man, who was to give the clearest expression to the hatred of the serpent for the Woman, was enthroned in the See of Constantinople amid the applause of the whole East, which hoped to see in him a second St. John Chrysostom. The joy of the good was of short duration. In the very year of his exaltation, on Christmas Day 428, Nestorius, taking advantage of the immense concourse which had assembled in honor of the Virgin Mother and Her Child, pronounced from the episcopal pulpit the blasphemous words: "Mary did not bring forth God; Her Son was only a man, the instrument of the Divinity." The multitude shuddered with horror. Eusebius, a simple layman, rose to give expression to the general indignation, and protested against this impiety. Soon a more explicit protest was drawn up and disseminated in the name of the members of this grief-stricken Church, launching an anathema against anyone who should dare to say: "The Only-begotten Son of the Father and the Son of Mary are different Persons." This generous attitude was the safeguard of Byzantium, and won the praise of Popes and Councils. When the shepherd becomes a wolf, the first duty of the flock is to defend itself. It is usual and regular, no doubt, for doctrine to descend from the Bishops to the faithful, and those who are subject in the Faith are not to judge their superiors. But in the treasure of Revelation there are essential doctrines which all Christians, by the very fact of their title as such, are bound to know and defend. The principle is the same whether it be a question of belief or conduct, dogma or morals. Treachery like that of Nestorius is rare in the Church, but it may happen that some pastors keep silence for one reason or another in circumstances when religion itself is at stake. The true children of Holy Church at such times are those who walk by the light of their Baptism, not the cowardly souls who, under the specious pretext of submission to the powers that be, delay their opposition to the enemy in the hope of receiving instructions which are neither necessary nor desirable.

The emotion produced by the blasphemy of Nestorius spread through the East and soon reached Alexandria. St. Cyril was then ruling the See which had been founded by St. Mark in the name of St. Peter and raised to the second place by the Head of the Church. The union of St. Athanasius and the Roman Pontiffs had overcome Arianism in the previous century, and now Rome and Alexandria were once more to unite in crushing heresy. But the enemy had learnt by experience and acted with infernal foresight. When the future champion of the Mother of God was raised to the See of St. Athanasius, this formidable alliance was a thing of the past. Theophilus, the late Patriarch, who was the principal author of the false condemnation of St. John Chrysostom at the pseudo-Council of "the Oak," had refused to subscribe to the rehabilitation of his victim by the Holy See, and Rome had been obliged to break with Her eldest daughter. St. Cyril was the nephew of Theophilus. He knew nothing of the secret motives by which his uncle had been governed. He had been brought up to honor him as his superior, his benefactor, and his master in sacred science, and when, in his turn, he became Patriarch, he had no thought of reversing the decisions of one whom he had always regarded as a father. Alexandria remained separated from the Church of Rome. Like the serpent, whose venom poisons all that it touches, Satan turned the most noble sentiments against the cause of God; but Our Lady, who loves an upright heart, did not abandon Her champion. After a few years of mishaps, which taught him to know men, the young Patriarch had his eyes opened to the truth by a holy monk, St. Isidore of Pelusium. Once convinced, he did not hesitate to restore the name of St. John Chrysostom to the sacred diptychs. The schemes of Hell came to naught. Rome found a new Athanasius on the banks of the Nile to assist Her in Her new combats for the Faith.

St. Cyril, restored to Catholic unity by a monk, showed as great a devotion to the holy solitaries as his predecessor had done. He confided to them his grief at the first news of Nestorius' impiety. The letter in which he appeals to their faith and warns them of the danger which threatens the Church has become famous. "Those," he says, "who have embraced in Christ the noble and enviable lot which is yours, ought to shine most brilliantly with the light of a perfect and unhesitating faith, and add to this light the special radiance of virtue. Then they ought to employ their wealth in increasing in themselves the knowledge of the mysteries of Christ, and striving to understand them perfectly. This is what I think St. Paul means when he speaks of the development of the perfect man (Eph. 4: 13), the way to arrive at the measure and fullness of Christ."

The Patriarch of Alexandria could not rest content with opening his heart to those of whose sympathy he was assured. He strove to win back Nestorius by letters, in which his personal meekness is only rivalled by the vigor and breadth of his doctrine. But Nestorius was obdurate. Having no arguments at his command, he complained of the Patriarch's interference. As it always happens, there were pacifists who, though not sharing Nestorius' errors, thought it would be best not to answer him for fear of embittering him, increasing the scandal, and wounding charity. St. Cyril thus answers that false virtue, which fears the affirmations of the Catholic Faith more than the audacity of heresy: "What! Nestorius dares to suffer men to say in public and in his presence that he who calls Mary the Mother of God is to be anathema! He hurls anathema, through his partisans, at us, at the other Bishops of the Universal Church and the ancient Fathers, who in all ages and all places with one accord have acknowledged and honored the Holy Mother of God! And have we not the right to repay him in his own coin and say, If anyone denies that Mary is the Mother of God, let him be anathema? Nevertheless, out of regard for him, I have not yet uttered these words."

Men of this type, also represented in all ages, revealed the true motive of their hesitation when, after insisting on the advantages of peace and their ancient friendship with Nestorius, they suggested timidly that it would be dangerous to oppose so powerful an adversary. "Could I but satisfy the Bishop of Constantinople and heal the wounded spirit of my brother by suffering the loss of all my possessions!" was St. Cyril's reply. "But the Faith is at stake. The scandal has spread through the Church, and all men are inquiring about the new doctrine. If we, who have received from God the office of teacher, fail to remedy such great evils, will there be flames enough for us at the Day of Judgment? I have already been struck by insult and calumny—let it pass. If only the Faith be safe, I will yield to none in my love of Nestorius. But if the Faith suffers through the deeds of some—let there be no doubt about it—I will not risk my soul even if instant death theaten me. If the fear of some disturbance is stronger than our zeal for God's glory and prevents us from speaking the truth, how shall we dare in the presence of the Christian people to celebrate the Holy Martyrs, whose glory lies in the very fact that they carried out in their lives the words: Even unto death fight for justice (Eccl. 4: 33)?"

When the combat became inevitable, he organized the forces of the Church, and summoned monks and Bishops to his side. He did not attempt to conceal the holy enthusiasm which filled his heart. "As far as I am concerned," he writes to the clerics who represent him in the imperial city, "my greatest desire is to suffer, live and die for the Faith of Jesus Christ. As it is written: If I shall give sleep to my eyes, or slumber to my eyelids, or rest to my temples (Ps. 131: 4, 5) until I have fought the battle which is necessary for the well-being of all. Therefore let your hearts be full of the same spirit and do manfully. Watch the enemy and inform us of his slightest movements. As soon as I can, I will send you some Bishops and monks, pious and prudent men, chosen out of many. I am already preparing my letters. I have resolved to labor without truce for the Faith of Christ and to suffer all torments, yes, death itself, which in such a cause would be sweet to me."

As delegate of Pope St. Celestine I, St. Cyril presided over the Council of Ephesus, where the Nestorian heresy was condemned, Nestorius was deprived of his see, and the Catholic doctrine as to the unity of Person in Christ and the Divine Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was defined amid the rejoicings of all the people, who escorted the Bishops to their lodgings with a torchlight procession. Nestorius and his followers made St. Cyril the object of their slanders, insults and persecutions, which he bore with great patience.

** St. Pulcheria ** At this point there appears at the side of St. Cyril the figure of a saintly woman, who for 40 years was the terror of Hell, and who twice crushed the head of the hateful serpent in the name of the Queen of Heaven. St. Pulcheria had assumed the reins of the imperial government at the age of 15. It was a time of disasters, but she arrested interior disturbances by her prudence and energy, and in union with her sisters, vowed to virginity like herself, held back the barbarian hordes by the might of their prayers. While the West was in its last agony, the East, thanks to its gifted Empress, was enjoying once more the prosperity of its best days. The sight of a granddaughter of Theodosius the Great, who employed her private wealth in multiplying churches in honor of Our Lady, taught Bysantium that devotion to Mary, which was her safeguard in evil days, and which obtained for her from Mary's Son centuries of mercy and incomprensible patience. General Councils have hailed St. Pulcheria as the guardian of the Faith and the bulwark of unity. St. Leo says that the greatest share in the defence of Divine Truth was hers. "A double palm is in her hands," says this great Pope, "a double crown on her head, for the Church owes to her a double victory over the impiety in the persons of Nestorius and Eutyches, who from different sides tended towards the same point—the denial of the Incarnation of the Son of God and of the share of the Virgin Mother in the salvation of mankind." The Feast of St. Pulcheria is observed on September 10.

O Holy Pontiff, St. Cyril, when thou didst proclaim the Divine Maternity in the name of St. Peter and St. Celestine, thou wast preparing for Our Lady another triumph, which was to be the consequence of the first. The Mother of God must be Immaculate. The definition of Pope Pius IX completes the work done by St. Celestine and thee. The two days—June 22, 431, and December 8, 1854—are equally glorious in Heaven, and were celebrated with like manifestations of joy and love on earth. And so, St. Cyril, the whole Church turned to thee after 14 centuries and proclaimed thee Doctor [Pope Leo XIII extended the Feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria to the Universal Church in 1882].

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