St. Hilary of Poitiers was a defender of the Orthodox faith during the struggle of the Church with the Arian heresy in the fourth century.
Hilary was born in Poitiers around 315, the son of aristocratic pagan parents in the portion of the Roman Empire called Gaul. His life at first took the normal course for someone of his station – he was educated, became an orator, married, and had a daughter. Then Hilary began a long period of study, searching for Truth and meaning in life. Among other things, he began reading the Christian Church’s Holy Scriptures and became convinced that therein lay the answers to his questions. He came to believe that there is one transcendent God, that Jesus Christ was truly God, and that man must answer in the hereafter for his moral decisions in this life.
Hilary was baptized into the Church in 350, and only three years later, was elected bishop of the city of Poitiers. Despite his reluctance, Hilary accepted the responsibility and spent the fifteen years of his episcopacy defending the Catholic faith against the Arians.
Although the Council of Nicea, called by the Emperor Constantine in 325, began the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which clearly proclaimed the Church’s teaching that the Son is “of one substance [essence] with the Father”, and Arius’ teachings against the divinity of Christ were defeated, Arius’ followers did not give up their efforts to present Christianity in a way more palatable to the world. Their efforts were aided considerably when Constantine’s sons succeeded him at his death. Constantius, ruler in the eastern portion of the empire, was inclined to Arian beliefs and sided with heretical bishops and priests in the controversy that was growing. Hilary defended Orthodoxy at the Synod of Bitterae in 356 and refused to condemn Bishop Athanasius, the sometimes sole Orthodox leader in the East. Athanasius had been exiled numerous times and now, Constantius sent Hilary into exile in Phrygia for four years (356-360). During this time, the bishop wrote one of his major works, On the Trinity. In defiance of the Emperor, he attended a council in Seleucia in 359 to condemn Arianism. Constantius was soon compelled to allow Hilary to return to Gaul, where the people rejoiced to have discipline and Orthodoxy restored. In 364, the bishop traveled to Milan to argue successfully against its Arian bishop, Auxentius.
Although his life was completely dominated by the theological struggle of the day, St. Hilary’s influence was felt in other areas of Church life as well. He encouraged St. Martin of Tours, another convert to Christianity, to establish a monastery in Liège and so was one of the founders of the monastic movement in the West. His other writings include commentaries on the Psalms and on the Gospel of Matthew, and he wrote hymns as a method of teaching.
St. Hilary fell asleep in the Lord in Poitiers in 368. St. Gregory of Tours, writing two hundred years later in his History of the Frankish People, describes him at his death: “St. Hilary went up to heaven, full of holiness and faith, and famous for his many miracles.” Called the “hammer of the Arians” for his lifetime of opposition to the Arian heresy, St. Hilary was described by St. Jerome as “a fair cedar transplanted out of this world into the Church” and St. Augustine called him an “illustrious teacher” of the Church. St. Hilary’s feast day is January 14. We give praise to God for his saints who help to show us the way.