Summary: A look into a lost faith tradition of reflecting on the life and work of the saints, especially Saint Hilary of Poitiers, feast day January 13
This past week my First-Grade son, who goes to the local Catholic School, along with all of this first grade classmates, helped lead the Wednesday mass. This was the second time this school year that he and his class has done this, and thus it was the second time that I went in order to see him and support him.
While I am not Catholic, my wife and I send our son to catholic school, one because of the smaller class sizes and the more individualized learning he can get from that setting, and two because of the Christian education he receives at the same time. Since I am not currently serving in a church setting, this second aspect is particularly important to us, even though doctrinally what we believe as a family and what they teach at the school do not always match up. I was reminded of this week, like I usually am when attending Mass. As is the custom of the Catholic church, during the service they sought the intercessions of the saints, particularly Saint Hilary of Poitiers, whose feast day was that day, January 13.
Whenever I hear about the Saints, the faithful followers of God from ages past, in reference to praying to them, or receiving intercession from them I tend to cringe in my seat. As a Lutheran, I have always been taught, and believe for myself, that one does not need to pray to a saint in order for that prayer to be heard by God. It is the teaching of the Lutheran Church, as it is written in Scripture that, "there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:5-6a, NRSV). Thus, the Lutheran Church Fathers wrote, "it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture that a person should call upon the saints or seek help from them." As such, Christ Jesus is the only one to whom we need to pray in order for God to hear our prayers.
Because of this understanding, however, I feel that the example of the Saints has been largely ignored by the Lutheran church. Just because we believe that we do not need to pray to the saints for God to hear us, that does not mean that their witness and their example do not deserve our reflection. As the Lutheran Church Fathers also point out, “the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith.” Today in the Catholic Mass that my son and his classmates helped lead I was reminded of this. You see, I had never heard of St. Hilary of Poitiers, nor did I know anything about him. And so, I decided to do just that, to learn more about him, and what he went through, and what he did that the church felt was so important as to canonize him as a saint.
Saint Hilary was born in the early part of the fourth century, somewhere around 315 C.E. in Poitiers France. Growing up, his family was not real religious, at least not in the way Christianity was beginning to be defined. Instead of believing in one God, Saint Hilary grew up believing in many gods, like many of the pagan religions of that time. As he grew older, however, he began to feel as though believing in multiple gods that had oversight of multiple aspects of life just did not make sense to him. What did make sense to him was the belief that there was one God who oversaw all aspects of life; and so, Hilary of Poitiers converted to Christianity, and eventually was chosen by his local community to be their local faith leader, or bishop. It was not until well after his death, around 368 C.E. that Hilary of Poitiers was canonized as a doctor of the church and received sainthood from Pope Pius IX in 1851.
What did Hilary of Poitiers do to qualify him for sainthood one might ask? Around that same time that Hilary of Poitiers was leading his local church as bishop, there was this movement spreading around that was trying to teach that Jesus was not in fact truly God, but just merely a man who followed God and offered a new teaching about God; this movement became known as Arianism. This movement gained so much momentum that even the holy Roman emperor became convinced that this was true and demanded that Hilary of Poitiers condemn the old teachings of Saint Athanasius which taught that Jesus was indeed truly God and the only means by which one can be saved. After refusing to do so, however, Saint Hilary was exiled to Phrygia by the emperor. It was while in exile that Saint Hilary of Poitiers did most of his work writing about the divinity of Jesus, and the connection of all the aspects of God that we have come to know as the Trinity.