“St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, glory of the Eastern Church and celebrated champion of the Virgin Mother of God, has always been held by the Church in the highest esteem, and We welcome the opportunity of recalling his merits in this brief Letter…He was, as Our saintly Predecessor Agatho proclaimed, ‘a defender of the truth’ and ‘a consistent teacher of the orthodox faith.'”
– Orientalis Ecclesiae, 9 April, 1944, Pope Pius XII
Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church: 1883 by Pope Leo XIII
Feast Day (1962 calendar): February 9th
St. Cyril was born in the late 4th century in Egypt, and we do not know much about his early life. It is widely held that he lived a monastic priesthood before succeeding his uncle as Bishop of Alexandria in the year 412.
Cyril is esteemed highly both the Western and Eastern churches, and rightly so. His clarity and stalwart defense of orthodoxy have earned him a place of high esteem, a defender of the Church surpassed perhaps only by Ss. Athanasius and Augustine.
One of the the most important moments in this great saint’s life was when he was sent as a representative of Pope Celestine I to preside over the Council of Ephesus in 431. The council was called to address the heresy of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople. In his 5 volume Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, Father Alban Butler summarizes Nestorius’ error as follows:
“[Nestorius taught] two distinct persons in Christ, that of God, and that of man, only joined by a moral union, by which he said the Godhead dwelt in the humanity merely as in its temple. Hence he denied the Incarnation, or that God was made man; and said the Blessed Virgin ought not to be styled the mother of God, but of the man who was Christ, whose humanity was only the temple of the divinity, not a nature hypostatically assumed by the divine Person.”
Living during a confusing and far less than orthodox papacy often makes us frustrated that repeated attempts at clarity and correction of errors – such as the Dubia, or Bishop Schneider’s requests for clarification – do not receive swift answers from Holy Mother Church. But if we read Father Alban’s account, we will discover that this sluggishness to resolve doctrinal conflict is not new in Church history, and infallibility is not some magic wand that makes heresy disappear.
Nestorius had a large backing of bishops who formed their own council and tried to excommunicate St. Cyril. This infighting amongst the bishops actually led to both Cyril and Nestorius being imprisoned for a time. Only when the pope sent more legates to exonerate St. Cyril did the Council officially condemn Nestorius, but even so, the bishops and priests who had supported him publicly persisted in their error for at least two more years.
To summarize: Nestorius, a heretical bishop who had the backing of 40 or more other bishops, including the Patriarch of Antioch, went toe to toe with a Church council. It took the imprisonment of the papal appointee overseeing the council and several years to resolve the matter. As if that was not complicated enough, Pope Celestine died and was replaced by Pope Saint Sixtus III in the middle of the council. In light of this situation, we might come to recognize that not every bishop will agree with one another and that the Church is not always unified in Her teaching without serious intervention in the form of great saints, Church councils, and ample time to hash out precise theological definitions.
It was also during this same council that St. Cyril gave us the great title of Mary as “theotokos” or “God bearer”, thereby affirming that she was indeed the Mother of God, putting a final nail in the coffin, at least philosophically, of the Nestorian heresy.
Many of St. Cyril’s writings and commentaries on Sacred Scripture exist still to this day and are, perhaps somewhat surprisingly considering their age, quite accessible. One can, for example, read his letter to Nestorius or to the Patriarch of Antioch. I recommend, however, starting with his preachings on Mary the Mother of God because of their beauty and clarity of doctrine. Here is an excerpt from one of his homilies, found in Father Alban’s aforementioned work:
“Hail, O Mary, mother of God, rich treasure of the world, inextinguishable lamp, crown of virginity, sceptre of the true doctrine, temple which cannot fall, the residence of him whom no place can contain, Mother and Virgin, by whom He is who cometh Blessed in the name of the Lord. Hail Mary, who in your virgin womb contained Him who is immense and incomprehensible: You, through whom the whole blessed Trinity is glorified and adored, through whom the precious cross is honoured and venerated over the whole world, through whom heaven exults, the angels and archangels rejoice, the devils are banished, the tempter is disarmed, the creature that was fallen is restored to heaven, and comes to the knowledge of the truth, through whom holy baptism is instituted, through whom is given the oil of exultation, through whom churches are founded over the whole earth, through whom nations are brought to penance. And what need of more words? Through whom the only begotten Son of God has shone the light to those who sat in darkness and in the shade of death. What man can celebrate the most praiseworthy Mary according to her dignity?”
Here, in the 5th century, a thousand years before any Protestant would come along and challenge such views on Mary, St. Cyril is affirming, among other things, her virginity, her worthiness of praise, and her ability to mediate on our behalf.
St. Cyril also often preached and wrote about the Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist, stating that at Holy Communion, “the tremendous mystery is performed, and the Lamb of God sacrificed: in which the Eternal Wisdom distributes his body as bread, and his saving blood as wine.” Quite cleverly, he used Christ’s True Presence to refute Nestorius, stating that we do not receive just the flesh of a man, which could not give eternal life, nor do we receive only the divinity of God, but in receiving His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity we must be receiving one person with two natures, both God and man, the Word made flesh.
Pope Pius XII wrote the encyclical Orientalis Ecclesiae about St. Cyril. I think it fitting to close with a quote from this work due to its relevance to our own time, in which we can at times be overly quick to condemn those we disagree with, or overly willing to fight unnecessarily amongst ourselves, often in an uncharitable and dismissive manner. The Pope writes:
“For Cyril, however, it was not enough to fight vigorously against heresies as they arose, not enough to guard the integrity of Catholic doctrine with energy and solicitude and throw the fullest possible light upon it; he was also untiring in his labors to recall his erring brethren to the straight path of the truth.”
May we, like St. Cyril, be untiring in helping one another to seek truth in Christ, who is truth itself.
St. Cyril of Alexandria, pray for us!
Jake is a Catholic convert and is passionate about spreading orthodox Catholicism and the traditional Latin Mass through writing and through his work on the Mass of the Ages documentary series. Additionally, he helps his wife, Emily, to run the Catholic All Year Market in partnership with Catholic author Kendra Tierney. He resides in Northern Virginia with Emily and his three children. He can be reached at [email protected] or through Mass of the Ages at [email protected].