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Cyril of Alexandria
Feast day: June 27
St. Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor of the Church was born at
Alexandria, Egypt. He was nephew of the patriarch of that city,
Theophilus. Cyril received a classical and theological education at
Alexandria and was ordained by his uncle Theophilus. Saints are not born
with halos around their heads. Cyril, recognized as a great teacher of
the Church, began his career as archbishop of Alexandria, Egypt, with
impulsive, often violent, actions. He pillaged and closed the churches
of the Novatian heretics, participated in the deposing of St. John
Chrysostom and confiscated Jewish property, expelling the Jews from
Alexandria in retaliation for their attacks on Christians.
He succeeded his uncle as patriarch of Alexandria on Theophilus'
death in 412, but only after a riot between Cyril's supporters and the
followers of his rival Timotheus. Cyril’s importance for theology and
Church history lies in his championing the cause of orthodoxy against
the heresy of Nestorius.
The controversy centered around the two natures in Christ. Nestorius
would not agree to the title “God-bearer” for Mary. He preferred
“Christ-bearer,” saying there are two distinct persons in Christ (divine
and human) joined only by a moral union. He said Mary was not the mother
of God but only of the man Christ, whose humanity was only a temple of
God. Nestorianism implied that the humanity of Christ was a mere
Presiding as the pope’s representative at the Council of Ephesus
(431), Cyril condemned Nestorianism and proclaimed Mary truly the
“God-bearer” (the mother of the one Person who is truly God and truly
human). In the confusion that followed, Cyril was deposed and imprisoned
for three months, after which he was welcomed back to Alexandria as a
second Athanasius (the champion against Arianism).
Besides needing to soften some of his opposition to those who had
sided with Nestorius, Cyril had difficulties with some of his own
allies, who thought he had gone too far, sacrificing not only language
but orthodoxy. Until his death, his policy of moderation kept his
extreme partisans under control. On his deathbed, despite pressure, he
refused to condemn the teacher of Nestorius.
During the rest of his life, Cyril wrote treatises that clarified the
doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation and that helped prevent
Nestorianism and Pelagianism from taking long-term deep root in the
Christian community. He was the most brilliant theologian of the
Alexandrian tradition. His writings are characterized by accurate
thinking, precise exposition, and great reasoning skills. Among his
writings are commentaries on John, Luke, and the Pentateuch, treatises
on dogmatic theology, and Apologia against Julian the Apostate, and
letters and sermons. He was declared a doctor of the Church by Pope Leo
XIII in 1882.