St. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria
St. Athanasios was born around 295, 296 A.D., in Alexandria, Egypt. His nationality was Egyptian, as was likely his ethnicity, but culturally he was Greek due to his education and his family’s social status. He was born into a pious Christian family that was affluent enough to afford Athanasios the best education available.
Athanasios grew up during the last major episode of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. As a result, Athanasios saw his faith put into action in an exceptional way, through the martyrdom of many people he knew, and this proved to be a time of great spiritual formation for him. During this time, perhaps to escape outbreaks of persecution in Alexandria, Athanasios spent time in the desert outside of Alexandria, where years before, persecuted Christians had fled and established communities. There he befriended a holy man, whom we know today as Saint Anthony the Great, who founded the practice of monasticism. The time that Athanasios spent in the desert also afforded him the opportunity to see his faith put into action in a different way, in a slower form of martyrdom, by observing Christians who were so intentional about growing their faith that they chose to continue living in a harsh physical environment because it aided them in their prayer life and relationship with God.
Athanasios spent his youth developing his relationship with God as he pursued his education. He participated actively in the life of the Church, regularly attending divine services, and at some point likely during his adolescence, became a deacon and assisted the Archbishop of Alexandria (also known as the patriarch) in church services. He studied in much depth and wrote extensively about the theology and Tradition of the Church as well as the heretical issues then threatening the Church. By his early 20s, Athanasios had written a two-part book that is a classic of Christian literature, called Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation.
In his late 20s, Athanasios participated in the Council of Nicaea, convened by Emperor Constantine the Great. Although only a deacon and unable to vote at the Council, Athanasios nevertheless contributed substantially to the Council’s deliberations, namely denouncing the Arian heresy, for which the Council had convened, and helping to compose the Church’s statement of faith, or its creed. Through his participation at the Council, other Church leaders noted his gifts of erudition, oratory, and courage, and he began to gain recognition as a champion of the True Faith.
Within a year or so after the Council at Nicaea, the Patriarch of Alexandria reposed in the Lord. Before his departure, he named Athanasios his successor, making Athanasios the Patriarch of Alexandria at about the age of 30, an extremely young age to become a bishop. He held this position for 47 years, but endured almost endless persecution throughout his tenure because of his steadfastness in defending the Faith and refuting heresies. As a result, he was exiled—that is, removed from his position as bishop and sent away from Alexandria—five times for a total of 17 years. He was reinstated to his position after each occasion of exile because each was the result of misinformation and/or malice by his enemies. These setbacks, however, did not deter Athanasios, who continued to write and labor as a good shepherd to protect the flock in his care.
Aside from his writings, contributions to the Council of Nicaea, pastoral duties, endurance of persecution, and prayer life, Saint Athanasios is recognized for setting forth to the Church the complete list of 27 books to be included in the New Testament. Other lists were proposed, but it was the list that Athanasios submitted that was accepted and adopted by the Church in 367. Athanasios, known in Christendom as Saint Athanasios the Great and esteemed as a Father of the Church, fell asleep in the Lord in 373.
Compiled by Susan M. Colón
© 2019, Susan M. Colón – Used by permission