Today’s saint, Cyril of Alexandria, is both a Father and a Doctor of the Church. The titles are a grace, of course, but he worked hard to correspond to them.
He was the nephew of his predecessor as Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. He likely spent his youth in a monastery before his uncle drafted him as an assistant and secretary. In 402 he accompanied Theophilus to the notorious Synod of the Oak that deposed St. John Chrysostom, sending the saint to his exile and death. Theophilus was among John’s accusers and persecutors, and it seems likely that Cyril, alas, shared his opinions (though he would, later in life, show signs of a change of heart).
Theophilus died in 412, and Cyril succeeded him, but only after a riot between his supporters and those of his rival. From the start, it seems, Cyril treated heretics and schismatics rather severely, and this won him the enduring opposition of “Can’t we all just get along” Christians, from his day down to our own. Those who despise him have tried to blame him for the lynching of the pagan philosopher Hypatia by an Alexandrian mob. Cyril also had the ill fortune to live in a time when relations between Christians and Jews in Egypt had escalated to open street violence. The Christians received little support from the governor, so Cyril assembled a rough and undisciplined guard of his own, with some truly awful results.
No one disputes that Cyril was an irascible character and something of a political operator. (I recall that even Cardinal Newman was scandalized by Cyril’s severity.) But he’s certainly not the villain that his ancient and modern detractors make him out to be. He was, like Jerome, one of the odd uncles among the Church Fathers. It is impossible to imagine Church history without them, but that doesn’t mean they were (or are) easy to live with.
Cyril was a man of crystalline intellect and tremendous courage, speaking up for the truth, no matter the cost. He was unwilling to compromise doctrine, even if it placed him in opposition to the Christian emperor. And Cyril was always willing to suffer the consequences: he was imprisoned for defending the true doctrine of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Cyril was, moreover, one of the most brilliant dogmatic theologians ever to walk God’s earth.
He is best known for opposing the teaching of the Nestorius, a monk from Antioch who became Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius opposed the use of the term Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) to describe Mary. He preferred Christotokos, or Christ-bearer, arguing that Mary could not be God’s mother, as she was not His origin; she was rather, he argued, the mother of Jesus’ human nature. Cyril argued, to the contrary, that a mother does not give birth to a nature, but to a person. To deny the title to Mary, then, was to divide Jesus Christ into two subjects, two persons, two “I’s.”
Matters came to a head at the Council of Ephesus in 431, where Cyril’s arguments won the day. Despite the oppressive summer heat — which killed off several of the bishops at council — an enormous crowd of ordinary Christians had assembled at Ephesus. And when, at night, they heard the news of the bishops’ decision, they let out a raucous shout, and they carried the council fathers through the streets of the city in a torchlight procession, singing Marian hymns with great gusto.
Still, once the bishops got back home, many were reluctant to enforce the decrees of the Council. Nestorius tried to summon counter-councils. And Cyril was even, for a brief time, deposed from the patriarchate. Once the dust settled on the controversies, he resumed his voluminous correspondence and Scripture commentary. He died, probably on the 27th of June, 444, after an episcopate of nearly thirty-two years.
An excellent recent biography of Cyril is J.A. McGuckin’s Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, which I reviewed recently for Touchstone magazine.