Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Cyril of Alexandria
"An Untiring and Firm Witness of Jesus Christ"
H.H. Benedict XVI
October 3, 2007
Dear brothers and sisters!
Today, continuing our journey in the footsteps of the Fathers of the
Church, we meet a great figure: St. Cyril of Alexandria. Linked to the
Christological controversy that led to the Council of Ephesus in 431,
and the last noteworthy representative of the Alexandrian tradition,
Cyril was later defined in the East as the “custodian of accuracy” -- in
other words, a guardian of the true faith -- and even the “seal of all
These ancient expressions manifest something that is, in fact,
characteristic of Cyril, that is, the constant references the bishop of
Alexandria makes to preceding ecclesiastical authorities -- including,
above all, Athanasius -- with the goal of showing the continuity of his
own theology with tradition.
Cyril took care to ensure that his theology was firmly situated within
the tradition of the Church, by which he sees the guarantee of
continuity with the Apostles and with Christ himself.
Venerated as a saint in both the East and the West, in 1882 St. Cyril
was proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII, who at that time
also gave the same title to another important representative of Greek
patristics, St. Cyril of Jerusalem. This shows that Pope's attention and
love for the Eastern Christian traditions; he would later proclaim St.
John Damascene a doctor of the Church, showing how the Eastern and
Western traditions express the doctrine of the one Church of Christ.
Information on the life of Cyril before his election to the important
See of Alexandria is scarce. A nephew of Theophilus -- who, as bishop
from 385, upheld the Diocese of Alexandria with resolve and prestige --
Cyril was most likely born in that same Egyptian city sometime between
370-380. He soon embraced the ecclesiastical life and received a good
education, both in culture and theology. In 403, he was in
Constantinople following his powerful uncle and, here, he participated
in the so-called Synod of the Oak, which deposed the city’s bishop --
John, later called Chrysostom. This indicated the triumph of the
Alexandrian See over its traditional rival, the See of Constantinople,
where the emperor resided.
Upon the death of his uncle Theophilus, though still young, Cyril was
elected bishop of the influential Church of Alexandria in 412, which he
governed with great energy for 32 years, working tirelessly to affirm
its primacy in the East, strengthened by its traditional bonds with
Two or three years later, in 417 or 418, the bishop of Alexandria showed
himself to be a realist and healed the rift in the communion with
Constantinople, which had been going on since 406, in the wake of
Chrysostom’s removal from office.
But the old conflict with the See of Constantinople was rekindled some
10 years later, when Nestorius was elected in 428, a prestigious but
severe monk, educated in Antioch. The new bishop of Constantinople
quickly brought much opposition because he preferred the title “Mother
of Christ” (Christotòkos) for Mary, in place of “Mother of God” (Theotòkos),
which was already beloved in popular devotion.
The reason for Bishop Nestorius’ choice was his adhesion to the
Christology of the Antiochean tradition, which, to safeguard the
importance of Christ’s humanity, ended up affirming its separation from
his divinity. Thus, there was no longer an authentic union between God
and the man Christ, and therefore, one could no longer speak of a
“Mother of God."
Cyril -- the leading exponent of Alexandrian Christology at the time,
one who emphatically underlined the unity of Christ’s person -- reacted
almost immediately, using every means possible beginning in 429, even
writing letters to Nestorius himself.
In the second letter (PG 77, 44-49) which Cyril sent to him, in February
430, we read a clear affirmation of the pastor’s task to preserve the
faith of God’s people. This was his criterion, which is still valid
today: The faith of God’s people is an expression of tradition, a
guarantee of sound doctrine. He wrote to Nestorius: “It is necessary to
explain the teaching and interpretation of the faith to the people in an
irreproachable way, and recall that he who scandalizes even one of these
little ones who believes in Christ will suffer an intolerable
In the same letter to Nestorius -- which later, in 451, would be
approved by the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon -- Cyril
describes his Christological faith with clarity: "The natures that have
united in a true unity are different, but from both resulted one Christ
and Son, not because, due to the unity, the differences of the human and
divine natures have been eliminated, but rather because humanity and
divinity united in an ineffable way have produced the one Lord, Christ,
the Son of God."
And this is important: The true humanity and the true divinity are
really united in one person, our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, continues
the bishop of Alexandria, “we profess only one Christ and Lord, not in
the sense that we adore the man together with the Logos, so as not to
insinuate the idea of separation by saying 'together,' but rather in the
sense that we adore only one; his body is not something detached from
the Logos, who sits at the Father’s side. There are not two sons sitting
at his side, but one alone united with his own flesh.”
Soon the bishop of Alexandria, thanks to shrewd alliances, saw to it
that Nestorius was repeatedly condemned: by the Roman See with a series
of 12 anathemas Cyril himself composed and, in the end, by the council
held in Ephesus in 431, the Third Ecumenical Council.
The assembly, which took place amid tumultuous and alternating
incidents, concluded with the great triumph of devotion to Mary and with
the exile of the bishop of Constantinople, who refused to recognize Mary
under the title of “Mother of God," because of a mistaken Christology,
which claimed that Christ was divided in himself.
After prevailing in such a definitive way over his rival and his
doctrine, Cyril was able to reach, as soon as 433, a theological formula
of compromise and reconciliation with the people of Antioch. And this is
also significant: On one hand there is clarity about the doctrine of
faith, but on the other, there is the intense search for unity and
reconciliation. In the years that followed, he dedicated himself in
every way to defend and clarify his theological position until his death
on June 27, 444.
Cyril’s writings -- numerous and widespread in various Latin and Eastern
traditions even during his life, which is a testament to their immediate
success -- are of the utmost importance for the history of Christianity.
His commentaries on many of the books of the Old and New Testaments,
including the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Psalms and the Gospels of John and
Luke, are important. Many of his doctrinal works are also greatly
important, in which he continually defends the Trinitarian faith against
the Arian theses and Nestorius.
The basis of Cyril’s teaching is the ecclesiastical tradition, and in
particular, as I mentioned, the writings of Athanasius, his great
predecessor in the Alexandrian See. Among Cyril’s other writings, we
must recall the books “Against Julian," the last great answer to
anti-Christian polemics, dictated by the bishop of Alexandria most
likely during the last years of his life as a response to “Against the
Galileans,” written many years before, in 363, by the emperor who was
called an apostate for having abandoned the Christianity in which he had
The Christian faith is above all a meeting with Jesus, “a person who
gives life a new horizon” (encyclical “Deus Caritas Est," No. 1). St.
Cyril of Alexandria was an untiring and firm witness of Jesus Christ,
the incarnate Word of God, emphasizing his unity above all, as he
repeats in his first letter in 433 to Bishop Succens: “One alone is the
Son, one alone is the Lord Jesus Christ, before the incarnation and
after the incarnation. In fact, it is not a question of a Son, the
Logos, born of God the Father, and another, born of the holy Virgin; but
we believe that he who is before all time was born according to the
flesh of a woman."
This affirmation, beyond its doctrinal significance, shows that faith in
Jesus, the “Logos,” born of the Father, is also deeply rooted in history
because, as St. Cyril says, this same Jesus came in time by being born
of Mary, the "Theotòkos," and will be, according to his promise, with us
always. And this is important: God is eternal, he was born of a woman
and remains with us every day. We live in this trust, in this trust we
find the path of our life.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[After the audience, the Holy Father addressed the audience in various
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The subject of today’s catechesis is Saint Cyril of Alexandria, known as
the "pillar of faith" and the "seal of all the Fathers". He was born
somewhere between 370 and 380, and at a young age became Bishop of
Alexandria. Cyril was a zealous defender of the faith. He took care to
ensure that his theology was firmly situated within the tradition of the
Church by referring to preceding ecclesiastical authorities, especially
Athanasius. Through a series of letters countering the position of
Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople, Cyril made a very significant
contribution to Christology defending the divinity and humanity of
Christ united in the one Lord, Christ and Son. He was also of utmost
influence at the Council of Ephesus, supporting the recognition of the
Virgin Mary as the "Mother of God". This led to the deposition of
Nestorius as Bishop of Constantinople. Saint Cyril, a prolific writer
whose works were read throughout the Church, was declared a Doctor of
the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1882. May our remembrance of this
outstanding figure in the history of Christianity remind us that the
centre of our faith is the encounter with Jesus Christ, who gives each
one of us a new horizon and a decisive direction!
I am pleased to welcome the English-speaking pilgrims present at this
Audience, especially those from Australia, Denmark, Scotland and the
United States. In a special way I greet the Maryknoll Missionaries, the
priests from the Diocese of Wheeling–Charleston, the students from the
Pontifical Beda College and Deacon Candidates from the Pontifical North
American College. May God continue to strengthen you as you strive to
serve his people. Upon all of you I invoke God’s abundant blessings of
joy and peace.
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