His life is woven of two dimensions: on the one hand, pastoral care, and on the other, his involvement, in spite of himself, in the heated controversies that were then tormenting the Church of the East” (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 27 June, 2007).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church: 1883 by Pope Leo XIII
Feast Day (pre-1962 calendar): March 18
Cyril was born in Jerusalem near the beginning of the fourth century, a time period in the Church that would see the most massive loss of faith amongst the Church hierarchy in all of history, rivaled perhaps only by the current day. All we know of his early life is that it was one of asceticism and prayer, with Cyril becoming a deacon and a priest early in his life. The bishop of Jerusalem, Maximus, entrusted him with educating the Catechumens; the catechetical lessons he wrote for them still comprise his most accessible and famous work.
When Maximus died, Cyril was selected to replace him as bishop. He was selected in large part due to the support of the bishop of Caesarea, who was known to be an Arian, because he thought he had an Arian ally in Cyril. This was the beginning of the controversy that surrounded Cyril even several centuries after his death. In hindsight it is clear that St. Cyril did not hold the views of the Arians, but one can sympathize with orthodox bishops who accused him of Arianism because of the support and friendship Cyril received from many in the Arian camp.
As a bishop, Cyril had a special love for the poor and when Jerusalem was ravaged by a famine he went as far as selling church possessions in order to help his people. He provided food and shelter for as many of the poor as he could, and worked tirelessly for the people of his diocese. I love reading stories like this because it makes these bishops seem so accessible. In the modern Church, the bishops keep such a busy, bureaucratic schedule that it is hard to imagine them ministering to the poor of their diocese on the streets unless it is for a photo-op. You are more likely to meet a bishop in a chancery office than in a parish hall or an event in town. There are many factors that contribute to this, and I am not blaming the bishops, but I would still love to see our shepherds be as accessible to their sheep as St. Cyril was.
The sale of church property for the sake of the hungry was actually used against him at a local council. The bishops at this time were almost entirely Arian and, led by Bishop Acacius, they were angry that Cyril had not taken their side as they thought he would. They accused him of disobedience and eventually got him exiled from Jerusalem. During his exile, the Arian camp grew even stronger and the tumult in the Church over this heresy grew far worse.
When Bishop Acacius was deposed around 359, Cyril returned to Jerusalem, only to be driven out once again and this time for a much longer period. Jerusalem fell into chaos and moral impoverishment as heresy and famine continued to sweep through the population. During this period of exile, St. Cyril wrote many letters and spent much of his time in prayer, returning to his ascetical roots.
By the year 381, the Church along with Emperor Theodosius knew they had to intervene in the Arian crisis, among other problems at the time, and called the Council of Constantinople. Interestingly and much to his credit, the Council adopted a formulation of the Nicene Creed that was written by St. Cyril himself. Those who believed he was sympathetic to the Arian views saw this as an act of repentance, others viewed it as a confirmation of his orthodoxy. The type of clear, logical writing it takes to succinctly distill the Faith into a creed is exactly why St. Cyril’s works are so highly honored. He had a remarkable talent for teaching Catholicism in its fullness to a wide range of students.
St. Cyril died a few years after the council, and the Church would remember him as a champion of Scriptural study and orthodoxy in the face of one of the most wide-spread heresies of all time.
It can be difficult to piece together information about the saints of the early centuries because there are conflicting reports, historical records that have been lost, and some pieces of the picture that are missing entirely. But we can gather from the life of St. Cyril that he fought to maintain orthodoxy and union with the Catholic Church at all costs. It is a common theme among the Doctors of the Church that they were responsible for some magnificent clarifying teaching of doctrine in the face of a crisis of faith or far-reaching heresy.
As someone who spends much of my time working on the Latin Mass documentary and studying the liturgy, St. Cyril’s catechetical lessons on the Mass are incredibly interesting to me. We can see from his writings that as early as the 4th century there was a structure to the liturgy that we would recognize today: the washing of the priest’s hands, the Sursum Corda, the Sanctus, the Roman Canon, the epiclesis, and the Pater Noster were all in place at this time.
Another piece of his writing that needs to be addressed is a quote that is often misused to promote communion in the hand. The argument goes that if a Doctor of the Church was writing about this in the 4th century, then the practice of receiving in the hand is an ancient and venerable custom. This is the quote that is used: “Approaching, do not come with thy palms stretched flat nor with fingers separated. But making thy left hand a seat for thy right, and hollowing thy palm, receive the Body of Christ, responding Amen.”
It sounds as if he is describing a way to reverently receive our Lord in your hands, and this may be the case, but before the passage is used as a carte-blanche approval of the practice, let us read the rest of the passage:
And having with care hallowed thine eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, take it, vigilant lest thou drop any of it. For shouldst thou lose any of it, it is as though thou wast deprived of a member of thy own body… Then after Communion of the Body of Christ, approach the Chalice of His Blood, not extending thy hands, but bending low, and with adoration and reverence saying Amen, sanctify thyself by receiving also the Blood of Christ. And while thy lips are yet wet, touch them with thy hands, and sanctify thy eyes and thy forehead and thy other senses.
What we need to do here is honestly compare any evidence of ancient Communion in the hand with the modern practice in most Novus Ordo parishes throughout the world. This is the question: does our modern practice resemble the Protestant heretics or the ancient church?
First, are we “vigilant lest [we] drop any of it”? Does the general practice of communion in the hand foster devotion to know Whom it is that we would be dropping? The key point here is devotion to the Particles of Our Lord. The Protestant heretics disregard These, since they deny the dogma of the Real Presence. This quote from St. Cyril clearly indicates Catholics cannot do this, and yet our modern practice completely imitates the heretics, literally leading to Our Lord being trampled underfoot, as Antoine Ménoret, PhD has shown.
Second, how many proponents of receiving in the hand are also champions of taking the Precious Blood from your lips and spreading it over your eyes, forehead and “other senses”? This shows the dishonesty of those who claimed they were reviving an ancient practice. In reality, they were begging the Church to allow them to imitate heretics and desecrate the Holy of Holies. In fact, Paul VI and the Holy Office explicitly rejected their claims, but disastrously sanctioned this “abuse” (as Paul VI himself called it) by indult. (For a review of this history with all the source documentation, see this discussion with our director Cameron O’Hearn.)
While we are on the topic of the Eucharist, I would also like to share a quote from St. Cyril about the Blessed Sacrament. No matter how many quotes I read from the Church Fathers, I am always astonished at the clarity of their language when discussing Our Lord’s True Presence in the Eucharist. It is clear beyond all doubt that the Catholic interpretation of John chapter six is the belief that all Christians held in the early centuries. Here are St. Cyril’s words in about the year 350:
He Himself has declared and said of the Bread, This is My Body, who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has affirmed and said, This is My Blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that it is not His blood? He once turned water into wine, in Cana of Galilee, at His own will, and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood? Therefore with fullest assurance let us partake as of the Body and Blood of Christ: for in the figure of Bread is given to thee His Body, and in the figure of Wine His Blood; that thou by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, mightest be made of the same body and the same blood with Him. For thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His Body and Blood are diffused through our members; thus it is that, according to the blessed Peter, we become partakers of the divine nature.
In an age where many Mass-going Catholics do not believe in the True Presence, I find the words of ancient saints like Cyril to be of absolute necessity for all Christians to read and re-read. This is our faith, the Faith of Jesus Christ as passed from the Apostles to their followers, down to the Fathers and Doctors and on to us. I hope that tracing these doctrines back to the 4th century will increase your faith, at least on an intellectual level, and that you will pray for an increase of supernatural faith as we all work to repair a Church that is, quite literally, in disbelief.
When you think about the crises the Church has faced every couple centuries, perhaps you are filled with hope as you think of the great saints who were called by God to fight each problem in turn. The Doctors of the Church come in chronological clusters: of the thirty-seven Doctors, ten of them countered Arianism and seven of them led the counter-reformation in the 16th century. This makes me wonder, who is combatting our current crisis that might be known as a Doctor of the Church several centuries from now? Will this be remembered as the age when laity were responsible for the reform rather than clergy and religious? Will we see podcasters, blog writers, and internet evangelists raised to a title of great honor in the Church for combatting modernism?
Lest any critics think I am merely justifying “rad trad complaining” online with wishful thinking, I offer these quotations from Fr. Gerald Murray of EWTN on the importance of the lay apostolate on the so-called “new media” starting with the great Mother Angelica. Fr. Murray outlines the parameters of responsible and charitable online discourse by the laity with these words:
The challenges facing the Church today are not primarily a matter of how we are going to implement Vatican II. The challenge facing the Church is how are we going to revive Christianity within the Catholic Church among a people who are losing interest. That’s where the Catholic laity are often leading the way and the many Catholic apostolates are doing a tremendous amount of good. Certainly, the most influential figure in the Catholic Church media-wise since the Council is Mother Angelica…
Fraternal correction in the modern age is done in ways that were never possible or imagined in the past, and people who don’t have the chance to meet a priest who is issuing teachings that are problematic, or in fact contradictory to the Faith, have a right to go online and make comments. If a priest is going to use Twitter, for instance, or Facebook to propagate his views, he should not then complain when people criticize him. Now, people should not criticize him in a manner that’s un-Christian, but Christianity does include rebuking the sinner as one of the spiritual works of mercy. To teach heresy and error is an objective sin—whether they are subjectively guilty is another matter—but you can certainly say to prominent people, “You’re doing damage by what you’re teaching.” Calling to account people who are supposed to teach the Catholic Faith, but who are actually harming the Faith, is a charitable action. It should be done in a manner that Christ would approve of. 
Editor’s note: see also “The Morality of Correcting the Pope” by our contributing editor, Dr. Michael Sirilla.
Doctors of the Church like St. Cyril, exiled from his see and facing persecution, used whatever he could to defend the faith and pass it down. We too, as the laity, must use whatever means possible to fulfill our duties as Christians in an age of apostasy.
I would like to leave you with a short admonition from this great Doctor, which rings true in our current crisis just as it did in the time of the Arian heresy some 1700 years ago: “Make your fold with the sheep; flee from the wolves: depart not from the Church.”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, pray for us!
 Fr. Gerald Murray, Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society (Emmaus Road, 2022), 119, 196.
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].