Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On Hilary of Poitiers
"God Only Knows How to Be Love"
H.H. Benedict XVI
October 10, 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to speak about a great Father of the Western Church,
St. Hilary of Poitiers, one of the great bishops of the 4th century.
Confronted with the Arians, who considered the Son of God a creature,
albeit an excellent one, Hilary dedicated his life to the defense of
faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and God as the
Father, who generated him from all eternity.
We do not have definitive data about most of Hilary's life. Ancient
sources say that he was born in Poitiers, probably around the year 310.
From a well-to-do family, he received a good literary education, which
is clearly evident in his writings. It does not seem that he was raised
in a Christian environment. He himself tells us about a journey of
searching for the truth, which little by little led him to the
recognition of God the creator and of the incarnate God, who died to
give us eternal life. He was baptized around 345, and elected bishop of
Poitiers around 353-354.
In the years that followed, Hilary wrote his first work, the "Commentary
on the Gospel of Matthew." It is the oldest surviving commentary in
Latin that we have on this Gospel. In 356, Hilary, as bishop, attended
the Synod of Beziers in southern France, which he called the "Synod of
the False Apostles," given that the assembly was dominated by bishops
who were followers of Arianism, and thus negated the divinity of Jesus
Christ. These "false apostles" asked Emperor Constantine to condemn to
exile the bishop of Poitiers. So Hilary was forced to leave Gaul during
the summer of 356.
Exiled to Phrygia, in present-day Turkey, Hilary found himself in
contact with a religious environment totally dominated by Arianism.
There, too, his pastoral solicitude led him to work tirelessly for the
re-establishment of the Church’s unity, based on the correct faith, as
formulated by the Council of Nicea. To this end, he began writing his
most important and most famous dogmatic work: "De Trinitatae" (On the
In it, Hilary talks about his own personal journey toward knowing God,
and he is intent on showing that Scriptures clearly attest to the Son's
divinity and his equality with the Father, not only in the New
Testament, but also in many pages of the Old Testament, in which the
mystery of Christ is already presented. Faced with the Arians, he
insists on the truth of the names of the Father and the Son and develops
his entire Trinitarian theology departing from the formula of baptism
given to us by the Lord himself: "In the name of the Father and the Son
and the Holy Spirit."
The Father and the Son are of the same nature. And if some passages of
the New Testament could lead one to think that the Son is inferior to
the Father, Hilary offers precise rules to avoid misleading
interpretations: Some passages in Scripture speak about Jesus as God,
others emphasize his humanity. Some refer to him in his pre-existence
with the Father; others take into consideration his self lowering
("kenosis"), his lowering himself unto death; and lastly, others
contemplate him in the glory of the resurrection.
During the years of his exile, Hilary also wrote the "Book of the
Synod," in which, for his brother bishops of Gaul, he reproduces and
comments on the confessions of faith and other documents of the synods
which met in the East around the middle of the 4th century. Always firm
in his opposition to radical Arians, St. Hilary showed a conciliatory
spirit with those who accepted that the Son was similar to the Father in
essence, naturally trying to lead them toward the fullness of faith,
which says that there is not only a similarity, but a true equality of
the Father and the Son in their divinity.
This also seems characteristic: His conciliatory spirit tries to
understand those who still have not yet arrived to the fullness of the
truth and helps them, with great theological intelligence, to reach the
fullness of faith in the true divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In 360 or 361, Hilary was finally able to return from exile to his
homeland and immediately resumed the pastoral work in his Church, but
the influence of his teaching extended, in fact, well beyond its
borders. A synod celebrated in Paris in 360 or 361 took up again the
language used by the Council of Nicea. Some ancient authors think that
this anti-Arian development of the bishops of Gaul was due, in large
part, to the strength and meekness of the bishop of Poitiers.
This was precisely his gift: uniting strength of faith and meekness in
interpersonal relationships. During the last years of his life, he wrote
"Treatises on the Psalms," a commentary on 58 psalms, interpreted
according to the principle highlighted in the introduction to the work:
"There is no doubt that all the things said in the Psalms must be
understood according to the Gospel proclamation, so that, independently
of the voice with which the prophetic spirit has spoken, everything
refers to the knowledge of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
incarnation, passion and kingdom, and the glory and power of our
resurrection” ("Instructio Psalmorum," 5).
In all of the Psalms, he sees this transparency of Christ's mystery and
of his body, which is the Church. On various occasions, Hilary met with
St. Martin: The future bishop of Tours founded a monastery near
Poitiers, which still exists today. Hilary died in 367. His feast day is
celebrated on Jan. 13. In 1851, Blessed Pius IX proclaimed him a doctor
of the Church.
To summarize the essential aspects of his doctrine, I would like to say
that the starting point for Hilary's theological reflection is the
baptismal faith. In "De Trinitate," he writes: Jesus "commanded to
baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (cf.
Matthew 28:19), that is to say, confessing the Author, the Only Begotten
One and the Gift. One alone is the author of all things, because there
is only one God the Father, from whom all things proceed. And one alone
is our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made (1
Corinthians 8:6), and one alone is the Spirit (Ephesians 4:4), gift in
everything. … Nothing can be found lacking in a plenitude that is so
grand, in which converges in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy
Spirit, the immensity of the Eternal, the revelation in the Image, the
joy in the Gift" ("De Trinitatae" 2:1).
God the Father, being all love, is able to communicate the fullness of
his divinity to the Son. I find this phrase of St. Hilary to be
particularly beautiful: "God only knows how to be love, only knows how
to be Father. And he who loves is not envious, and whoever is Father, is
so totally. This name does not allow for compromise, as if to say that
God is father only in certain aspects and not in others” (ibid. 9:61).
For this reason, the Son is fully God without lacking anything or having
any lessening: "He who comes from the perfect is perfect, because he who
has everything, has given him everything" (ibid. 2:8). Only in Christ,
Son of God and Son of Man, does humanity find salvation. Taking on human
nature, he united every man to himself, "he became our flesh" ("Tractatus
in Psalmos" 54:9); "he took on the nature of all flesh, thus becoming
the true vine, the root of all branches" (ibid. 51:16).
Precisely because of this motive, the path to Christ is open to all --
because he drew everyone into his humanity -- even though personal
conversion is always required: "Through the relationship with his flesh,
access to Christ is open to everyone, provided that they leave aside the
old man (cf. Ephesians 4:22) and nail him to his cross (cf. Colossians
2:14); provided they abandon their former works and are converted, in
order to be buried with him in baptism, in view of life (cf. Colossians
1:12; Romans 6:4)" (ibid. 91:9).
Faithfulness to God is a gift of his grace. Therefore St. Hilary asks,
at the end of his treatise on the Trinity, to be able to remain faithful
to the faith of baptism. One of the characteristics of this book is
this: Reflection is transformed into prayer and prayer leads to
reflection. The entire book is a dialogue with God.
I would like to end today's catechesis with one of these prayers, that
also becomes our prayer: "Grant, O Lord," Hilary prays in a moment of
inspiration, "that I may remain faithful to that which I professed in
the symbol of my regeneration, when I was baptized in the Father, the
Son and the Holy Spirit. That I may adore you, our Father, and together
with you, your Son; that I may be worthy of your Holy Spirit, who
proceeds from you through your only Son. … Amen” ("De Trinitatae"
[After the audience, the Pope greeted the people in various languages.
In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The subject of today’s catechesis is Saint Hilary of Poitiers. He was
born around the year 310, baptized when he was about thirty-five, and
became Bishop of Poitiers some eight years later. In opposition to the
Arians, who believed Jesus was a created being, Hilary dedicated his
life to defending our faith in the divinity of Christ. While exiled to
Frigia, because of the stance he took against the Arians at the Synod of
Béziers, he began his most important work, De Trinitate. In this text he
demonstrates how both the old and new testaments clearly attest the
divinity of the Son and his equality with the Father with whom he shares
one nature. In his De Synodis Hilary maintained a conciliatory spirit
with those who used deficient theological formulations, while leading
them to accept fully the Nicean creed. In 360 he returned home, took up
his pastoral duties, and continued to write. The influence of his
teaching spread and many were strengthened in their resistance to Arian
thought, realising that Christ is our Saviour precisely because he is
true God and true man. Fundamental to Hilary’s insight was the
importance of our Trinitarian baptismal faith. Let us join him in
praying to the Lord that we remain faithful to this confession, and
always bear joyful witness to our baptismal call!
I welcome all the English speaking visitors present today, including
members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, participants in the Nato
Defence College Senior Course, and the student groups from Scotland and
Denmark May your time in Rome be one of spiritual renewal. Upon all of
you I invoke God’s abundant blessings of joy and peace.
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