Watch Mass Online

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in posts
Search in pages

St. Athanasius’ Battle Against Arianism

During the fourth century, the Church was plagued by a pernicious new heresy that denied Christ’s divinity: Arianism. Not only was St. Athanasius at the forefront of the debates over this heresy in the nascent stages of his career, but he would continue to battle Arianism most of his life, finding himself victim to vicious slanders and attacks. As we celebrate his memorial this week, we invite you to learn more about his fight against heresy, his invaluable contributions to the faith, and where you can find him portrayed in the Basilica.

St. Athanasius
St. Athanasius portrayed in the window of the St. Lucy chapel

St. Athanasius: Early Life

St. Athanasius was born to Christian parents around the year 296 in Alexandria. After receiving an education in Christian doctrine, Greek literature and philosophy, rhetoric, and more, he began working as secretary to a prominent bishop in 318.

Only a few years later, he was plunged into the Church’s debates over the Arian heresy. Promulgated by Arius, a citizen of Alexandria, Arianism claimed that Christ was created by the Father and was not fully God. As more and more people began to follow Arius’ teachings, the Church decided to hold the Council of Nicaea in 325 to clarify theological questions. In response to the heresy, the Church not only formulated the Nicene Creed, but condemned Arius in an encyclical letter which may have been written by Athanasius himself. At the very least, he was present for the council.

Heresy, Slanders, and Lawsuits

After assuming the role of bishop of Alexandria in 328, Athanasius ardently defended the fundamentals of the Nicene Creed and soon found himself assailed by lawsuits, harassment, and more. Following the Council of Tyre, the Emperor Constantine banished Athanasius to Gaul. Constantine’s successor later reinstated Athanasius as bishop, but the Arians were relentless in laboring to undermine him behind the scenes. Upon Athanasius’ return from exile, the Arian bishop Eusebius convinced Constantine to request that Athanasius “readmit Arius into communion.” Unwilling to sanction one who rejected Christ’s divinity, Athanasius refused.

Thanks to Eusebius, more slanders followed, accusing Athanasius of everything from personal misconduct to the offense of taking linen from a general tribute for his own church. Though he was cleared of charges and returned to Alexandria, the attacks from his opponents didn’t stop.

A Prolific Exile

At one point, after being ambushed by troops amidst a church vigil, Athanasius fled Alexandria and spent six years in hiding. Despite his frustrations, this was a prolific era for him, producing some of his most significant works, including A History of the Arians, three letters to Serapion, and a treatise on the synods of Rimini and Seleucia. Although most of his works were polemics against Arianism, he also wrote a biography of St. Anthony which proved quite popular and influential in monastic establishments.

The End of Exile and a Lasting Legacy

Over the course of Athanasius’ lifetime, the series of false accusations and legal battles against him culminated in five different exiles. After spending 17 years in exile, near the end of his life, he was invited back to serve as bishop of Alexandria. He spent his final days in this office before passing away in 373. In addition to his tireless battles against Arianism, he also created the first list of books to be included in the Christian Bible. His selection was confirmed as canon by St. Jerome following the translation of the Scriptures into the Vulgate, with no additions or subtractions made.

In the Basilica, you can find St. Athanasius portrayed in the Baldachin of the Great Upper Church, as well as in a lunette window in the St. Lucy Chapel.


Butler’s Lives of Saints, ed. Bernard Bangley

Saint Athanasius,” Franciscan Media

St. Athanasius,” EWTN

3 Places to Find the Ascension in the Basilica
Who were Saint Philip and Saint James the Younger?