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Wednesday's Audience - On Hilary of Poitiers

10/11/2007 - PST

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"God Only Knows How to Be Love"


VATICAN CITY, OCT. 11, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Wednesday at the general audience in St. Peter's Square. The reflection focused on St. Hilary of Poitiers.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to speak about a great Father of the Western Church, St. Hilary of Poitiers, one of the great bishops of the 4th century. Confronted with the Arians, who considered the Son of God a creature, albeit an excellent one, Hilary dedicated his life to the defense of faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and God as the Father, who generated him from all eternity.

We do not have definitive data about most of Hilary's life. Ancient sources say that he was born in Poitiers, probably around the year 310. From a well-to-do family, he received a good literary education, which is clearly evident in his writings. It does not seem that he was raised in a Christian environment. He himself tells us about a journey of searching for the truth, which little by little led him to the recognition of God the creator and of the incarnate God, who died to give us eternal life. He was baptized around 345, and elected bishop of Poitiers around 353-354.

In the years that followed, Hilary wrote his first work, the "Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew." It is the oldest surviving commentary in Latin that we have on this Gospel. In 356, Hilary, as bishop, attended the Synod of Beziers in southern France, which he called the "Synod of the False Apostles," given that the assembly was dominated by bishops who were followers of Arianism, and thus negated the divinity of Jesus Christ. These "false apostles" asked Emperor Constantine to condemn to exile the bishop of Poitiers. So Hilary was forced to leave Gaul during the summer of 356.

Exiled to Phrygia, in present-day Turkey, Hilary found himself in contact with a religious environment totally dominated by Arianism. There, too, his pastoral solicitude led him to work tirelessly for the re-establishment of the Church’s unity, based on the correct faith, as formulated by the Council of Nicea. To this end, he began writing his most important and most famous dogmatic work: "De Trinitatae" (On the Trinity).

In it, Hilary talks about his own personal journey toward knowing God, and he is intent on showing that Scriptures clearly attest to the Son's divinity and his equality with the Father, not only in the New Testament, but also in many pages of the Old Testament, in which the mystery of Christ is already presented. Faced with the Arians, he insists on the truth of the names of the Father and the Son and develops his entire Trinitarian theology departing from the formula of baptism given to us by the Lord himself: "In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."

The Father and the Son are of the same nature. And if some passages of the New Testament could lead one to think that the Son is inferior to the Father, Hilary offers precise rules to avoid misleading interpretations: Some passages in Scripture speak about Jesus as God, others emphasize his humanity. Some refer to him in his pre-existence with the Father; others take into consideration his self lowering ("kenosis"), his lowering himself unto death; and lastly, others contemplate him in the glory of the resurrection.

During the years of his exile, Hilary also wrote the "Book of the Synod," in which, for his brother bishops of Gaul, he reproduces and comments on the confessions of faith and other documents of the synods which met in the East around the middle of the 4th century. Always firm in his opposition to radical Arians, St. Hilary showed a conciliatory spirit with those who accepted that the Son was similar to the Father in essence, naturally trying to lead them toward the fullness of faith, which says that there is not only a similarity, but a true equality of the Father and the Son in their divinity.

This also seems characteristic: His conciliatory spirit tries to understand those who still have not yet arrived to the fullness of the truth and helps them, with great theological intelligence, to reach the fullness of faith in the true divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In 360 or 361, Hilary was finally able to return from exile to his homeland and immediately resumed the pastoral work in his Church, but the influence of his teaching extended, in fact, well beyond its borders. A synod celebrated in Paris in 360 or 361 took up again the language used by the Council of Nicea. Some ancient authors think that this anti-Arian development of the bishops of Gaul was due, in large part, to the strength and meekness of the bishop of Poitiers.

This was precisely his gift: uniting strength of faith and meekness in interpersonal relationships. During the last years of his life, he wrote ...

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