Feast Day : January 13 (formerly January 14)
Patronage: retarded children; against snakebite
Also known as: Athanasius of the West, the Doctor of Divinity of Christ
One of the most esteemed theologians of his day, Hilary was born in Poitiers, Aquitaine, in what is now southwestern France. His family was noble and wealthy, though pagan. After studying rhetoric and philosophy, he married and had a daughter. He was already in middle life when he was converted to Christianity through his reading of the Bible. His daughter Abra (Abram, Afra, Apra) also is counted among the saints. Hilary was elected bishop of Poitiers around 350 (when he was 35) and thereafter he and his wife lived apart in perpetual continence. Soon after his consecration, he wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which, together with his commentaries on the Psalms, St. Jerome recommended for reading especially by virgins and the devout. Hilary quickly became embroiled in the controversy over Arianism, a heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus. Arianism had been embraced by Emperor Constantine (Constantius) II, who had compelled the Eastern churches to embrace the creed. In 355, Constantine II called a synod in Milan to further its spread in the West as well. In response, Hilary wrote his First Book to Constantius, begging Constantine II to restore peace to the Church. However, the following year, he was condemned by a synod at Béziers (Bitterae), and Constantine II banished him to Phrygia. Hilary used his exile for study and writing. To this period belongs his most celebrated work, De Trinitate, 12 books arguing the consubstantiality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, intended to refute Arianism. He proved to be such an effective apologist for orthodox Christianity that Arian bishops, fearing his influence in the East, pressured Constantine to return him to his see in 360. On his way back to Gaul, Hilary traveled through Illyricum and Italy, preaching against Arianism. He was received enthusiastically by the people of Poitiers, and once returned to his see set about more formal condemnation of the heresy, both in the senate and in a synod he convened. With Constantine II’s death in 361, the Arian persecutions came to an end, though the heresy was still strong. In 364, therefore, Hilary traveled to Milan to engage in public debate with one of its exponents. His oratorical skills proved so strong that the man, Bishop Auxentius, lost his imperial support and was sent into exile. In his battle against Arianism, Hilary turned against the heresy one of its own innovations and strengths— hymns. During his exile, he had realized that Arian hymns were used to spread the false views, and he wrote some of his own. Three have survived—one about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness; a second about Easter; and a third, 70 verses long, about the Trinity. Hilary died in Poitiers in 368, on either November 1 or January 13. His remains were initially laid to rest there, though some were burned by Huguenots. Others were translated to the abbey of St. Denys, near Paris, while yet others appear to have been taken to Limousin. Miracles reported at his tomb were recorded by St. Gregory of Tours, among others. So renowned was Hilary that the spring term at English courts of law and at Oxford University is named the “Hilary term” in his honor. In art, Hilary is portrayed as a bishop holding an open book of the Gospel; with three books; with a pen or stick; or with a child (sometimes in a cradle at his feet, raised to life by him). Sometimes he is shown with his friend St. Martin of Tours, or with a snake and dragon.