From B16, a General Audience talk, an introduction to Cyril, from 2007. In it, we see two important truths emphasized. First, the importance of theology, which is not pointless nit-picking, but the journey to clarify the mysteries of faith as far as is humanly possible. Secondly, the Christian faith as one rooted in revealed truths, and the responsibility to guard and share those truths faithfully.
Today too, continuing our journey following the traces left by the Fathers of the Church, we meet an important figure: St Cyril of Alexandria. Linked to the Christological controversy which led to the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the last important representative of the Alexandrian tradition in the Greek Orient, Cyril was later defined as “the guardian of exactitude” – to be understood as guardian of the true faith – and even the “seal of the Fathers”. These ancient descriptions express clearly a characteristic feature of Cyril: the Bishop of Alexandria’s constant reference to earlier ecclesiastical authors (including, in particular, Athanasius), for the purpose of showing the continuity with tradition of theology itself. He deliberately, explicitly inserted himself into the Church’s tradition, which he recognized as guaranteeing continuity with the Apostles and with Christ himself.
But the old conflict with the Constantinople See flared up again about 10 years later, when in 428 Nestorius was elected, a severe and authoritarian monk trained in Antioch. The new Bishop of Constantinople, in fact, soon provoked opposition because he preferred to use as Mary’s title in his preaching “Mother of Christ” (Christotòkos) instead of “Mother of God” (Theotòkos), already very dear to popular devotion. One reason for Bishop Nestorius’ decision was his adherence to the Antiochean type of Christology, which, to safeguard the importance of Christ’s humanity, ended by affirming the division of the Divinity. Hence, the union between God and man in Christ could no longer be true, so naturally it was no longer possible to speak of the “Mother of God”.
The reaction of Cyril – at that time the greatest exponent of Alexandrian Christology, who intended on the other hand to stress the unity of Christ’s person – was almost immediate, and from 429 he left no stone unturned, even addressing several letters to Nestorius himself. In the second of Cyril’s letters to Nestorius (PG 77, 44-49), written in February 430, we read a clear affirmation of the duty of Pastors to preserve the faith of the People of God. This was his criterion, moreover, still valid today: the faith of the People of God is an expression of tradition, it is a guarantee of sound doctrine. This is what he wrote to Nestorius: “It is essential to explain the teaching and interpretation of the faith to the people in the most irreproachable way, and to remember that those who cause scandal even to only one of the little ones who believe in Christ will be subjected to an unbearable punishment”.
In the same letter to Nestorius – a letter which later, in 451, was to be approved by the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council – Cyril described his Christological faith clearly: “Thus, we affirm that the natures are different that are united in one true unity, but from both has come only one Christ and Son; not because, due to their unity, the difference in their natures has been eliminated, but rather, because divinity and humanity, reunited in an ineffable and indescribable union, have produced for us one Lord and Christ and Son”. And this is important: true humanity and true divinity are really united in only one Person, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Bishop of Alexandria continued: “We will profess only one Christ and Lord, not in the sense that we worship the man together with the Logos, in order not to suggest the idea of separation by saying “together’, but in the sense that we worship only one and the same, because he is not extraneous to the Logos, his body, with which he also sits at his Father’s side, not as if “two sons” are sitting beside him but only one, united with his own flesh”.
And soon the Bishop of Alexandria, thanks to shrewd alliances, obtained the repeated condemnation of Nestorius: by the See of Rome, consequently with a series of 12 anathemas which he himself composed, and finally, by the Council held in Ephesus in 431, the Third Ecumenical Council. The assembly which went on with alternating and turbulent events, ended with the first great triumph of devotion to Mary and with the exile of the Bishop of Constantinople, who had been reluctant to recognize the Blessed Virgin’s right to the title of “Mother of God” because of an erroneous Christology that brought division to Christ himself. After thus prevailing against his rival and his doctrine, by 433 Cyril was nevertheless already able to achieve a theological formula of compromise and reconciliation with the Antiocheans. This is also significant: on the one hand is the clarity of the doctrine of faith, but in addition, on the other, the intense search for unity and reconciliation. In the following years he devoted himself in every possible way to defending and explaining his theological stance, until his death on 27 June 444.
Benedict’s General Audience talks on great Church figures were collected into books by several Catholic publishers, including Our Sunday Visitor. I wrote study guides for two of them: his talks on the Apostles, and those on the Greek and Latin Fathers. You can find the latter in a pdf form here, and it is still useful for both individual and group study, I believe. The questions for the unit including Cyril of Alexandria:
1. Cyril of Alexandria is remembered for his defense of Christian orthodoxy against Nestorius. What did Nestorius claim?
2. What did Cyril say was wrong with Nestorius’s teaching? Why was this conflict just as much about Jesus as it was about Mary?
3. What was at stake in this controversy? What is the deeper reality that concerned Cyril?
4. Why was Hilary of Poitiers exiled? What did Hilary do during his exile?
5. How did Hilary’s approach combine adherence to truth with pastoral sensitivity?
6. How, according to Hilary, do we come into relationship with Christ? How does this change us?
7. What role do the words of baptism play in the thought of Hilary?
8. Where did Eusebius of Vercelli live and minister? What was the spiritual condition of this area?
9. What role did his monastic establishments play in his ministry? 10. What was Eusebius’s time in exile like? What did he accomplish?
11. How did Eusebius encourage his clergy and people to keep their spiritual balance?
12. What were the conditions in Turin during the ministry of Maximus?
13. To whom were many of his homilies addressed? Why?
14. What did Maximus have to say about wealth?
15. How did Maximus come to be involved in a role in the civic life of the community?
Questions for Reflection
1. The Fathers in this session, as well as in the rest of the book, grappled with questions of Jesus’ identity. Why was this not a simply academic question? Why was it so important to them? How does our sense of Jesus’ identity impact our own spiritual lives?
2. Eusebius emphasized monastic establishments as centers for spiritual renewal and pastoral ministry in his area. Why do you think he did this? Why was monasticism such an important factor in Christian life for the next millennium? What role does monasticism play in today’s Church and world?
3. Maximus spoke strongly to the people of his community about their relationship to wealth and material things. What do you think he would say to us today?
4. Pope Benedict cites Hilary’s “spirit of reconciliation” in dealing with those who cannot quite affirm the fullness of faith. Are there areas of life in which you have reached out and built relationships with those with whom you disagree? What is the foundation of such a relationship?
5. These Fathers ministered in communities in which Christianity was still a minority and often found itself in conflict. How did they minister in those situations? What can you learn from them about living in such an environment, in which the general culture stands in conflict with the Gospel?
There seems to be more to Catholicism than, “What does Pope Francis think?” and “What did Pope Francis say today?” and “What would Pope Francis do?”