It should be a great comfort to realize that even saints have to work diligently to achieve holiness. One of the great gifts they leave behind for us is their example of heroic virtue through which they became the person God meant them to be. Just as we often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes; we can profit as much by what a saint overcame as we can from what they achieved.
Such was the case with Saint Cyril of Alexandria. We know very little about his early life. We are even unsure of whether he was born in 376 or 378, but we do know that by 403, at what was called the Council of the Oak, he was already having an impact on the life of the early Church. His initial actions do not appear to be particularly saint-like. The Council of the Oak was convened to depose Saint John Chrysostom, whose sermons had of-fended the Roman empress. Though he was brought back into favor for a short period of time, St. John Chrysostom was eventually forcibly exiled to a remote corner of the empire, where he died in 407.
St. Cyril’s own mercurial temperament, though it helped make him a powerful figure (he was named archbishop of Alexandria in 412), also made him a controversial one. He was known to be impulsive and sometimes even violent. When Jews in Alexandria were accused of attacking Christians, he expelled them from the city and confiscated their property. At one point, he was even blamed for the murder of Hypatia, a female Neo-Platonic philosopher, but there is no evidence that he was responsible for the mob’ actions that led to her death.
What St. Cyril is most remembered for is his defense of the Virgin Mary’s title “Mother of God”, which was, in turn, based on his belief in both Christ’s full humanity and His full divinity. His major theological opponent on this issue was Nestorius, who himself became archbishop of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius objected to calling Mary the “Mother of God” saying that she was only the “Mother of Christ”. It was Nestorius’ belief that Jesus’ humanity was merely “a temple of God. a mere disguise”, and that the divine Christ and the human Jesus were two separate persons. Nestorianism, as his teaching came to be known, flew in the face of the Church’s teaching that Christ is “consubstantial with the Father”. (A belief that the Church proclaims at every celebration of the Mass).
The issue came to a head at the Council of Ephesus in 431, where it was affirmed that Mary could indeed be honored as the “Mother of God,” which is rendered in Greek as Theotokos. It was at this council that Cyril, presiding as the pope’s representative, condemned Nestorianism as heresy and had Constantinople’s arch-bishop deposed. Unfortunately, his impulsive mishandling of some aspects of the council actually produced a Nestorian sect, which arose in reaction to what was perceived to be an injustice to Nestorius.
It would be some time before Cyril would begin to soften, not his theological position, but his temper and his impulsiveness. Ironically, as he did so, some of his allies felt that he had gone too far and thought that he was compromising, not his attitude, but his orthodoxy. Until his death in 444, St. Cyril continued to write treatises clarifying the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1882. O God, who made the Bishop Saint Cyril of Alexandria an invincible champion of the divine motherhood of the most Blessed Virgin Mary, grant, we pray, that we, who believe she is truly the Mother of God, may be redeemed through the Incarnation of Christ our Lord.