January 28: St Cyril of Alexandria, Memorial


Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 - 444), bishop and doctor of the Church, played a central role in the first Council of Ephesus, but he remains controversial character in several respects, perhaps the reason he did not make it into the Roman calendar until 1882 (when he was declared a doctor of the Church).

Patron of unity with the East?

Two twentieth century Popes, Pius XI &XII wrote encyclicals on him, seeing him as a possible patron of Christian unity given his strongly pro-Roman primacy stance.  In Orientalis Ecclesiae, Pius XII wrote:
"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, now that fifteen centuries have passed since he happily exchanged this earthly exile for his heavenly home.

Our Predecessor St. Celestine I hailed him as 'good defender of the Catholic faith,' as 'excellent priest,' as 'apostolic man.' The ecumenical Council of Chalcedon not only used his doctrine for the detecting and refuting of the latest errors, but went so far as to compare it with the learning of St. Leo the Great; and in fact the latter praised and commended the writings of this great Doctor because of their perfect agreement with the faith of the holy Fathers. The fifth ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople, treated St. Cyril's authority with similar reverence and many years later, during the controversy about the two wills in Christ, his teaching was rightly and triumphantly vindicated, both in the first Lateran Council and in the sixth ecumenical Council, against the false charge of being tainted with the error of Monothelitism. He was, as Our saintly Predecessor Agatho proclaimed, 'a defender of the truth' and 'a consistent teacher of the orthodox faith.'

We therefore think it proper in this Letter to give some account of his spotless life, faith, and virtue; and this for the benefit of all, but especially of those who belong to the Eastern Church and therefore have good reason to be proud of this luminary of Christian wisdom, this valiant hero of the apostolate."

Politics and the mob?

St Cyril might, however, also be a possible patron for those given to forthrightness in the pursuit of truth, and direct in their action to pursue its triumph.  Fr Rengers, in his 'The 33 Doctors of the Church', describes him as an extremely forceful character.  Norman Russell, in Cyril of Alexandria, describes him as "a man of iron will and a consummate ecclesiastical politician."  Secular historians are less generous.

Certainly politics in Alexandria at the time were highly volatile, and Cyril was an active player to various degrees in several nasty conflicts, using at times mobs of rioting desert monks and other vigorous means to advance his agenda in conflict with the secular authorities, Jewish population, heretics, pagans and the Church of Constantinople (his predecessor uncle played a lead role in the deposition of St John Chrysostom, and Bishop Cyril had a series on going quarrels with the See, even before he played the central role in the deposition of bishop Nestorius, see below) .  One lynch mob of monks was responsible for the death of the philosopher Hypatia, though there seems to be no evidence whatsoever of Cyril's direct involvement in this.

St Cyril is most remembered however for his role in the Council of Ephesus in 431, convened to deal with the Nestorian heresy, the view that Our Lady was not Mother of God, being propagated by the bishop of Constantinople.  St Cyril managed to get the right outcome from the Council in part by starting and finishing the Council before Nestorius and his followers (or for that matter, the Papal legates) had arrived.  He then proceeded to communicate the outcome to Nestorius, writing:

"To Nestorius, the new Judas.  Know that by reason of your impious preachings and disobedience to the canons on the 22nd of this month of June, in conformity with the rules of the Church, you have been deposed by the Holy Synod, and you now no longer have any rank in the Church."

Needless to say, the matter was not  resolved, as Nestorius faction convened a counter "Robber Council of Ephesus", sparking a schism that, despite the subsequent efforts of St Cyril to conciliate the situation, was only finally resolved at Chalcedon in 451.

Nonetheless, St Cyril was an important theologian of the first rank, who made significant contributions on the nature of Christ, in fighting for the title of Our Lady as Theotokos (Mother of God), and in defending the faith in his patriarchy.

Pope Benedict XVI gave a General Audience on the saint on 3 October 2007 which helps put his life into perspective.

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