The following story appeared in the March 10 Idaho Catholic Register.
By Emily Woodham
St. Cyril of Jerusalem stands out for his gentle nature, which seemed antithetical to his stubborn adherence to orthodoxy. Born in 315 A.D., he arrived in the world just after Christians were given religious tolerance by Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan issued in 313.
The fourth century was a time of great change for the Church. No longer persecuted by the Roman government, Christians were able to openly proclaim and live out their faith. However, historians point out that as Christianity became more acceptable, it faced new problems. One was discerning the sincerity of belief of new converts. No longer needing to fear being ostracized or martyred, more and more converts became Christian for political or social gain.
Also, as the Church stopped being persecuted from without, divisions and controversies rose within. Some disagreements were politically motivated for power and influence. Other arguments were about serious theological differences over the central beliefs of Christianity and salvation. The most notable heresy was Arianism, which denied the divine nature of Christ.
There are not many stories about St. Cyril’s life before he became bishop of Jerusalem in 348. In analyzing his writings, scholars believe he grew up in Jerusalem, was well-educated and most likely from a wealthy family. He had at least one sister and a brother, who also was consecrated a bishop.
Cyril was ordained a priest in 335 in Jerusalem. He was well-loved by the people and respected by other bishops.
When the Bishop of Jerusalem died, Acacius, the metropolitan of Caesarea (the neighboring See to Jerusalem), chose to consecrate Cyril as the next bishop of Jerusalem. Acacius was an Arian and assumed that the soft-spoken Cyril would not threaten his Arian agenda. Acacius quickly found he was mistaken.
Cyril was very protective of his See and its people. When Acacius wanted to claim authority over Jerusalem and insisted on Arian teachings, Cyril would have none of it. However, Cyril did not become vindictive in his battles with Acacius.
Despite troubles with Acacius, Cyril remained focused on his role of pastoring his people. To help new Christians be faithful to Christ and His Church, he wrote a series of catechetical lectures. The first 18 lectures are meant for Lent, while catechumens are preparing for the sacraments. The final five lectures are mystagogical (from “mysteries” in Greek). These lectures to the “neophytes” (new Christians) were delivered during the first week of Easter and explained the sacraments and how to live a sacramental life. All 23 of the lectures are so consistent with current Church catechesis that they are used as historical evidence for the continuity of Church teaching.
Acacius was furious at Cyril’s audacity to ignore his wishes and to be so blatantly orthodox. He complained at a synod and accused Cyril of injustices. The synod exiled Cyril in 357. Cyril went to Tarsus, where he appealed his exile.
He was able to return in 359, but was exiled again in 360. This time, Acacius accused Cyril of selling Church property illegally. Although Cyril had sold items, it was to obtain money for food for the starving during a famine. Despite the ridiculousness of Acacius’ accusations, Cyril was exiled for a year until politics again shifted in his favor.
Under Julian the Apostate (361-363), Cyril was restored to Jerusalem. On his way back, he again showed that his gentle nature did not mean he lacked courage or action. He rescued a young Christian man who was being tortured by his pagan father and brought him safely to Jerusalem.
Despite his restoration under Julian, Cyril did not hesitate to disagree with the emperor. When Julian tried to rebuild the Jewish Temple, Cyril told him it was a bad idea. A mysterious storm soon happened after his condemnation of the building of the Temple, destroying all the foundational work. It was taken as an omen that Cyril was correct in his misgivings.
The Arian emperor Valens (364-378) banished all orthodox bishops from their sees in 367. Cyril was exiled from the time of the decree until Valens’ death. When he returned, Jerusalem was in utter chaos. Morality had declined to the point that murder and prostitution were considered normal practices. Christians were constantly fighting, and the Church in Jerusalem was fractured with disagreements. It was so bad that a council of bishops sent St. Gregory of Nyssa to help Cyril restore orthodoxy and morality.
Cyril spent the rest of his life bringing renewal to his people, encouraging them to live wholeheartedly for Christ and to avoid needless divisions. Despite his care for his people and all that he contributed to catechesis, rumors were still rampant that he was actually an Arian in disguise. He attended the Council of Constantinople in 381, where he condemned all forms of Arianism and agreed to the final draft of the Nicene Creed. His defense of orthodoxy was so eloquent and clear that bishops wrote to Pope Damasus I (366-384) so that he would know with certainty that Cyril was not an Arian.
Although rumors and lies were maliciously spread about him, he was never known to speak ill of anyone. He did not become bitter or change in kindness toward others. Historians note that he preached frequently on Christ’s love and forgiveness and the Christian duty to imitate Christ, which he modeled in his own life.
He died peacefully in 387. He was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1883.
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