After having consecrated the joyous Octave of the Epiphany to the glory of the Emmanuel who was manifested to the earth, the Church—incessantly occupied with the Divine Child and his august Mother during the whole time from Christmas Day to that whereon Mary will bring Jesus to the Temple, there to be offered to God as the law prescribes—the Church, we say, has on her Calendar of this portion of the year the names of many glorious Saints who shine like so many stars on the path which leads us from the joys of the Nativity of our Lord to the sacred mystery of our Lady’s Purification.
And firstly, there comes before us, on the very morrow of the day consecrated to the Baptism of Jesus, the faithful and courageous Hilary—the pride of the Churches of Gaul and the worthy associate of Athanasius and Eusebius of Vercelli in the battle fought for the Divinity of our Emmanuel. Scarcely were the cruel persecution of paganism over when there commenced the fierce contest with Arianism, which had sworn to deprive of the glory and honors of his divinity that Jesus, who had conquered, by his Martyrs, over the violence and craft of the Roman Emperors. The Church had won her liberty by shedding her blood, and it was not likely that she would be less courageous on the new battlefield into which she was driven. Many were the Martyrs that were put to death by her new enemies—Christian, though heretical, Princes: it was for the Divinity of our Lord, who had mercifully appeared on the earth in the weakness of human flesh, that they shed their blood. Side by side with these, there stood those holy and illustrious Doctors who, with the martyr-spirit within them, defended, by their learning and eloquence, the Nicene Faith, which was the Faith of the Apostles. In the foremost rank of these latter we behold the Saint of today, covered with the rich laurels of his brave confessorship, Hilary, who, as St. Jerome says of him, was brought up in the pompous school of Gaul, yet had called the flowers of Grecian science, and became the Rhone of Latin eloquence. St. Augustine calls him the illustrious Doctor of the Churches.
Though gifted with the most extraordinary talents, and one of the most learned men of the age, yet St. Hilary’s greatest glory is his intense love for the Incarnate Word, and his zeal for the Liberty of the Church. His great soul thirsted after martyrdom and, by the unflinching love of truth which such a spirit gave him, he was the brave champion of the Church in that trying period when Faith, that had stood the brunt of persecution, seemed to be on the point of being betrayed by the craft of Princes and the cowardice of temporizing and unorthodox Pastors.
Let us listen to the short Life of our Saint, contained in the Lessons of his Office.
Hilary was born of a noble family in Aquitaine and was distinguished for his learning and eloquence. He was married, but the life he led was almost that of a monk, so that, later on, on account of his great virtues, he was made Bishop of Poitiers, and so well did he discharge the episcopal office, as to be the object of the deepest veneration on the part of the faithful. At that time, the Emperor Constantine was inflicting every sort of harsh treatment, intimidation, confiscation of their property, and banishment, on the Catholics who refused to side with the Arians. Hilary set himself as a bulwark against the Arians, thereby bringing on himself all their fury. On this account, they many times sought to ensnare him, and at length, by the treachery of Saturninus, the Bishop of Arles, he was banished from the Council at Beziers into Phrygia. There he raised a dead man to life, and wrote his twelve books On the Trinity, against the Arians.
Four years after, a Council was called at Seleucia, a town in Isauria, at which Hilary was compelled to assist. Thence he set out for Constantinople, where, seeing the extreme dangers to which the true faith had been exposed, he petitioned the Emperor, by three public petitions, to grant him an audience, in order that he might obtain permission to hold a controversy with his adversaries concerning matters of faith. But Ursacius and Valens, two Arian Bishops, whom Hilary had refuted in his writings, were afraid of allowing so learned a man to continue there any longer, and persuaded Constantius to restore him to his episcopal see, under the pretense of showing him honor. Then did the Church of Gaul open her arms, as St. Jerome says, to receive Hilary on his return from battle with the heretics. St. Martin, who was afterwards Bishop of Tours, followed the holy Doctor to Poitiers; how much he profited by the instructions of such a master is evidenced by the sanctity of his after-life.
From that time, he was left in perfect peace in the government of the Church of Poitiers. He led the whole of Gaul to condemn the Arian blasphemies. He composed a great many exceedingly learned books, of which St. Jerome, in a letter to Læta, says, that they may be all read without the slightest fear of meeting any false doctrine in them; he assures her, that she may run through the books of Hilary without stumbling on anything dangerous. He passed from this earth to heaven on the Ides of January (January 13th), during the reign of the Emperors Valentinian and Valens, in the year of our Lord 369. Hilary was called by several fathers and Councils, an illustrious Doctor of the Church, and was publicly honored as such in certain dioceses. At length, at the petition of the Council of Bordeaux, the Supreme Pontiff, Pius the Ninth, after having consulted the congregation of sacred Rites, declared him to have been justly called, and to be in effect, a Doctor of the universal Church; and ordered, that on his Feast, all should recite the Mass and Office Of Doctors.
The ancient Gallican Liturgy, of which a few precious remnants have been handed down to us, thus celebrated the praise of the most illustrious of the Bishops of that great country. Our first extract is an Allocution addressed to the Faithful, taken from an ancient Sacramentary.
On the recurrence, Brethren, of this solemn Feast of the most blessed Bishop Hilary, whose tongue, during his mortal life, so thundered forth the truth concerning the equality of the Three Divine Persons, that he, the soldier of Christ, threw down the Prince of this world, and entered a conqueror into the palace of the heavenly King—let us, with more than our wonted fervor, beseech the adorable God, that He, who made Hilary so vigilant in all his combats as to give security in the battle, may mercifully grant to us, that what we ask in his honor, may be granted to us by his intercession.
This Preface, which extols the virtues and the miracles of St. Hilary, was sung in the Church of Gaul, even after the introduction of the Roman Liturgy.
It is truly right and just that we give thanks, and pay our vows, and consecrate our gifts to thee, O Holy Lord, Father Almighty, Eternal God, who didst choose unto thyself the blessed Hilary thy Confessor, that he might be the Pontiff of thy sacred doctrines. He was a great a brilliant light, he was full of meekness in his comportment, he was all fire in fervor of faith, he was a torrent of eloquence. How great is his glory, is shown by the concourse of people at his tomb, the deliverance of the possessed, the healing of sicknesses, and the miracles of wonderful power. He has, by nature’s law, ended his course and passed hence away; but the merits of the Pontiff are still living there, beyond the grave, where reigns our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The following prayer has been culled out of several old manuscript Missals.
O God, by whose mercy sinners are raised up to pardon, and the just are translated to heaven for their crown; who, poured out into the heart of the blessed Bishop Hilary, didst thence, as from thy sanctuary, give the answers of faith; mercifully grant that, as thou didst make thy glorious Confessor to be fearless before Cæsar, so mayest thou, by his intercession, protect thy suppliant people from their spiritual enemy: thus may they, who rejoice on his solemnity, be defended by his powerful prayers.
The Church of Poitiers has ever cherished, with the utmost devotion, the memory of her heroic Pontiff, and his Feast, as we may suppose is kept there with the utmost solemnity. She sings in the Mass of this day, the Preface of the Blessed Trinity, to express more forcibly her admiration of the zeal wherewith Hilary defended the master dogma of our holy faith—the mystery of Three Persons in one God. It will be interesting to our readers to hear a few passages from the ancient liturgical books of this illustrious Church of Poitiers. The following Responsories are taken, in part, from the Life of the Saints, and were composed by St. Vanantius Fortunatus, one of St. Hilary’s successors.
℟. Blessed Hilary shone above others by the nobility of his birth, to which was added an unsullied heart; * He was as the day-star is among other stars. ℣. Blessed Hilary, the Bishop of the city of Poitiers, was born in the province of Aquitaine. * He was.
℟. Oh! how perfect was he not as a layman! The very Priests made him their model. * His whole life was the fearing Christ with love and the loving him with fear. ℣. They who follow him, attain to glory; they who follow him not, incur punishment; they who believe him, are rewarded; they who disbelieve him, are tormented. * His whole life.
℟. The most saintly Hilary was therefore banished into Phrygia, a country of Asia; it served but to increase his virtue; * since the further, for the name of Christ, he was separated from his own land, the nearer he deserve to be made to heaven. ℣. When he had reached the longed-for place, great were the favors bestowed on him, and we will publish them. * Since.
℟. When the holy Bishop Hilary, returning from exile, entered Poitiers, all men were alike loud in the expression of unbounded joy. * For the Church recovered her Pontiff, and the flock its Shepherd. ℣. The pearl of Bishops has returned home, let us give praise to our Lord, and let the choir of Angels rejoice. * For the Church.
The same venerable Church of Poitiers sings these two Hymns in honor of her glorious Saint. They were composed by the pious Simon Gourdan, a Canon Regular of Saint Victor’s Abbey, that celebrated House in Paris, where Adam of Saint-Victor wrote his admirable Sequences.
From the time that the Church, the mother of so many great men, united Gaul to the flock of Christ—who is there that can be compared to Hilary? who is there that ever defended more zealously than he the Son of the Eternal Father?
Let the holy flock sing the great titles of his glory, his majestic eloquence, and his innumerable gifts; but his grandest praise is the faith, wherewith he so loudly proclaimed Christ to be the Son of God.
The noble mitre, that glittered on his venerable head, was not, indeed, purpled with the blood of martyrdom; his sacrifice was that of a thousand cares, and his ceaseless labors supply for the beauty of martyrdom.
He was the bold defender of the Nicene Faith, which the fury of hell sought in vain to destroy. The golden sword, which came so brightly from his mouth, drives away the ravenous wolves.
With what beaming joy did not his devoted flock welcome him from exile! How fair the laurels he reaped in the long campaigns for Christ! He taught thee, O Martin! to walk with vigor in the path of virtue.
Infinite praise to the Father, and infinite be to the Son, begotten in the fruitful bosom of the Father; to the Son, who is equal to the Father, and God like Him. To the Divine Spirit too, be there infinite praise!
Nor craft, nor favor, nor threat, can move this high-minded soldier of Christ. He obeys the sentence of the tyrant, and the flock is deprived of its Shepherd—oh! who will now defend them from the wolves?
And must thou, then, Pontiff, go? Thy noble mind makes thee submit to the sentence, but Gaul sheds floods of tears. Phrygia receives thee on her land, happy to possess the champion of the Word Incarnate.
Hilary, the holy Doctor, darts the fresh light into the lurking holes of error, and with a stream of living water carries from the pastures of the flock the poisonous slime. Barbarous nations receive instruction at his hands.
There were Pastors that had faltered, and he confirms them in the faith; then sends them back to the flocks they had, in timid compromise to error, abandoned; and thus the children hear their Father’s voice again.
Great Pontiff! who now, in heaven above, seest the Sun of Justice face to face; pray, for us, we beseech thee, that He, the Incarnate Word, whose nature thou didst preach to men, may teach us all truth.
Let worldly men, that are earthly minded, fear if they will an Emperor’s tyranny: Hilary heeds not the passion of an angry Cæsar, but preaches, with holy liberty, the faith of Christ.
Infinite praise to the Father, and infinite be to the Son, begotten in the fruitful bosom of the Father; to the Son, who is equal to the Father, and God like Him. To the Divine Spirit, too, be there infinite praise!
Thus did the holy bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, receive the honors of the Church’s love for his having so courageously, and even at the peril of his life, fought in defense of the great Mystery. Another of his glories is that he was one of the most intrepid champions of that principle which cannot be compromised without the vitality and very existence of the Church being endangered—the principle of that Church’s Liberty. A few days ago we were celebrating the Feast of our holy Martyr St. Thomas of Canterbury; today we have the Feast of the glorious Confessor whose example enlightened and encouraged him in the great struggle. Both Hilary and Thomas à Becket were obedient to the teaching left to the Pastors of the Church by the Apostles; who, when they were arraigned the first time before the authorities of this world, uttered this great maxim: We ought to obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:29) The Apostles and the Saints were strong in the battle against flesh and blood, only because they were detached from earthly goods, and were convinced that the true riches of a Christian and a Bishop consist in the humility and poverty of the Crib, and that the only victorious power is in the imitation of the simplicity and the weakness of the Child that is born unto us. They relished the lessons of the School of Bethlehem; hence, no promise of honors, of riches, or even of peace, could make them swerve from the principles of the Gospel.
How dignified is this family of Soldiers of Christ, which springs up in the Church! If the policy of tyrants, who insist on being Christians without Christianity, carry on a persecution, in which they are determined that no one shall have the glory of Martyrdom—these brave Champions raise their voice, and boldly reproach the persecutors for their interference with that Liberty which is due to Christ and his Ministers. They begin by telling them their duty, as Hilary did Constantius, when he sent him his first Memorial: “My Lord and most gracious Augustus! Your own great and admirable prudence tells you that it is not right, nor possible, violently to compel, and take part with, then that are sowing the corrupt seed of false doctrine. The one end of your endeavors, wise counsels, government, and vigilance, should be that all your subjects may enjoy the sweets of liberty. There is no other means of settling the troubles of the state, or of uniting what discord has separated, than that every one be master of his own life, unconstrained by slavish compulsion. You should not turn a deaf ear to the voice of any subject who thus appeals to you for support: ‘I am a Catholic; I will not be a heretic: I am a Christian, and not an Arian: I would rather lose my life than allow the tyranny of any man to corrupt the purity of my faith.’”
When some people spoke to Hilary in favor of those who had been traitors to the Church and had been disloyal to Jesus Christ, in order to keep in the good graces of the Emperor, they ventures to tell the Saint that their conduct was justifiable, on ground that they had but obeyed the Law! The holy Pontiff was indignant at this profanation of the word, and in his Book against Auxentius, courageously reminds his fellow Bishops of the origin of the Church—how her very establishment depended on the breaking of unjust human Laws, and how she counts it one of her glories to infringe all such Laws as would oppose her existence, her development, and her action.
“We have a contempt for all the trouble that men of these days are giving themselves; and I am grieved to see them holding such mad opinions as that God needs man’s patronage, and that the Church of Christ requires to be upheld by an ambition, that curries favor with the world. I ask of you Bishops, what favor did the Apostles court, in order that they might preach the Gospel? Who were the the princes that helped them to preach Christ, and convert almost the whole world from idolatry to God? Did they who sang hymns to God in prisons and chains and while bleeding from being scourged, did they accept offices from the state? Did Paul wait for a royal permission to draw men to the Church of Christ? Did he, think you, cringe for the patronage of a Nero, or a Vespasian, or a Decius, whose very hatred of our faith was the occasion of its being more triumphantly preached? These Apostles, who lived by the labor of their own hands, who assembled the Faithful in garrets and hiding places, who visited villages and towns, and well nigh the whole world, travelling over sea and land in spite of the Senate’s decrees and Imperial Edicts—these men, according to your principles, had not received the keys of the kingdom of heaven! What say you to all this manifestation of God’s power in the very face of man’s opposition, when the more there was a prohibition to preach Christ, the more that preaching was exercised?”
But the time came, at last, to speak to the Emperor himself, and to protest against the system whereby he aimed at making the Church a slave; then did Hilary, who was exceedingly gentle in disposition, put on that holy indignation, which our Lord himself had, when he scourged the profaners of his Father’s House, and drove them out of the Temple. He braved every danger, and held up to execration the system invented by Constantius for insulting and crushing the Church of Christ. Let us listen to the language of his apostolic zeal.
“The time for speaking is come, for the time for silence is past. Let Christ now appear, for Antichrist has begun his reign. Let the Shepherds give the alarm, for the hirelings have fled. Let us lay down our lives for our sheep, for thieves have got into the fold, and a furious lion is prowling around it. Let us prepare for martyrdom … for the angel of satan hath transformed himself into an angel of light …
“Who, O my God, didst thou not permit me to confess thy holy Name, and be the minister of thine Only Begotten Son, in the times of Nero or Decian? Full of the fire of the Holy Spirit, I would not have feared the rack, for I would have thought on Isaias, how he was sawn in two. I would not have feared fire, for I would have said to myself, that the Hebrew Children sang in their fiery furnace. The cross and the breaking every bone of my body should not have made me a coward, for the good thief would have encouraged me, who was translated into thy kingdom. If they had threatened to drown me in the angry billows of the deep ocean, I would have laughed at their threats, for thou hast taught us, by the example of Jonas and Paul, that thou canst give life to thy servants even in the sea.
“Happy me, could I thus have fought with men who professed themselves to be the enemies of thy name; every one would have said that they who had recourse to tortures and sword and fire, to compel a Christian to deny thee, were persecutors; and my death would have been sufficient testimony to thy truth, O God! The battle would have been an open one, and no one would have hesitated to call, by the honest name, these men that denied thee, and racked and murdered us; and thy people, seeing that it was an evident persecution, would have followed their Pastors in the confession of their faith.
“But nowadays, we have to do with a disguised persecutor, a smooth-tongued enemy, a Constantius who has put on Antichrist; who scourges us not with lashes, but with caresses; who instead of robbing us, which would give us spiritual life, bribes us with riches, that he may lead us to eternal death; who thrusts us, not into the liberty of a prison, but into the honors of his palace, that he may enslave us; who tears, not our flesh, but our hearts; who beheads not with a sword, but kills the soul with his gold; who sentences not by a herald that we are to be burnt, but covertly enkindles the fire of hell against us. He does not dispute with us, that he may conquer; but he flatters us, that so he may lord it over our souls. He confesses Christ, the better to deny Him; he tries to procure a unity which shall destroy peace; he puts down some few heretics so that he may also crush the Christians; he honors Bishops, that they may cease to be Bishops; he builds up Churches, that he may pull down the faith. …
“Let men talk as they will, and accuse me of strong language and calumny: it is the duty of a minister of the truth to speak the truth. If what I say be untrue, let me be branded with the name of an infamous calumniator: but if I prove what I assert, then am I not exceeding the bounds of apostolic liberty, nor transgressing the humility of a successor of the Apostles by speaking thus, after so long observing silence … No, this is not rashness, it is faith; it is not inconsiderateness, it is duty; it is not passion, it is conscience.
“I say to thee, Constantius, what I would have said to Nero, or Decius, or Maximian: You are fighting against God, you are raging against the Church, you are persecuting the saints, you are hating the preachers of Christ, you are destroying religion, you are a tyrant, not in human things, but in things that appertain to God. Yes, this is what I should say to thee as well as to them; but listen now to what can only be said to thyself: Thou falsely callest thyself a Christian, for thou art a new enemy of Christ; thou art a precursor of Antichrist, and a doer of his mystery of iniquity; thou that art a rebel to the faith, art making formulas of faith; thou art intruding thine own creatures into the sees of the Bishops; thou art putting out the good and putting in the bad … By a strange ingenious plan, which no one had ever yet discovered, thou hast found a way to persecute without making Martyrs.
“We owe much to you, Nero, Decius, and Maximian! your cruelty did us service. We conquered the devil by your persecutions. The blood of the holy Martyrs you made has been treasured up throughout the world, and their venerable relics are ever strengthening us in faith by their mute ceaseless testimony … But thou, Constantius, cruel with thy refinement of cruelty, art an enemy that ragest against us, doing us more injury and leaving us less hope of pardon … Thou deprivest the fallen of the excuse they might have had with their Eternal Judge, when they showed Him the scars and wounds they had endured for him, for perhaps their tortures might induce him to forgive their weakness. Whereas thou, most wicked of men! thou hast invented a persecution which, if we fall, robs us of pardon, and if we triumph, does not make us Martyrs!
“… We see thee, ravenous wolf, under thy sheep’s clothing. Thou adornest the sanctuaries of God’s temples with the gold of the State, and thou offerest to Him what is taken from the temples, or taxed by edict, or extorted by penalty. Thou receivest his Priests with a kiss like that which betrayed Christ. Thou bowest down thy head for a blessing, and then thou usest it to trample on our Faith. Thou dispensest the clergy from paying tributes and taxes to Cæsar, that thou mayest bribe them to be renegades to Christ, foregoing thy own rights, that God may be deprives of his!”
Glorious Hilary! thou didst well deserve that thy Church of Poitiers should, of old, address to thee the magnificent praise given by the Roman Church to the illustrious disciple, St. Martin: “O blessed Pontiff! who with his whole heart loved Christ our King, and feared not the majesty of emperors: O most holy soul! which, though not taken away by the sword of the persecutor, yet lost not the palm of martyrdom!” If the Palm of a Martyr is not in thy hand, yet hadst thou a Martyr’s spirit, and well might we add to thy other titles, of a Confessor, Bishop, and Doctor, the glorious one of Martyr, just as our holy Mother the Church has conferred it upon thy fellow combatant, Eusebius, who was but Martyr in heart like thyself. Yes, thy glory is great; but it is all due to thee for thy courage in confessing the Divinity of that Incarnate Word, whose Birth and Infancy we are now celebrating. Thou hadst to stand before a Herod, as had the Magi, and like them, thou fearedst not: and when the Cæsar of those times banished thee to a foreign land, thy soul found comfort in the thought that the Infant Jesus, too, was exiled into Egypt. Oh! that we could imitate thee in the application of these Mysteries to ourselves!
Now that thou art in heaven, pray for our Churches, that they may be firm in the Faith, and may study to know and love Jesus our Emmanuel. Pray for thy Church of Poitiers, which still loves thee with the reverence and affection of a child; but since the ardor of thy seal embraced all the world, pray also for all the world. Pray that God may bless his Church with Bishops powerful in word and work, profound in sacred science, faithful in the guardianship of that which is entrusted to them, and unswerving defenders of Ecclesiastical Liberty.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)