This great champion of the faith has been attacked by modern writers as passionate and intolerant; it is true that he was guilty of several errors in administrating his patriarchate, and that his impetuosity gave the impulse which led to serious violation of justice.

But we must remember that no man, not the greatest of saints, is without imperfection of character, and that the greatest of saints are they who, having serious natural defects, have mastered them by their faith and self-control. S. Cyril began his patriarchate under disadvantageous circumstances.

Riot and Rebels

He was the nephew of Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, Chrysostom’s worst enemy, a man devoid of principle, wholly given up to pride of station; on October 15th, 412, he closed his episcopate of twenty-seven years; a melancholy instance of great powers rendered baneful to the Church by a worldly spirit and a violent temper. He was succeeded by his nephew Cyril.

The evil of his uncle’s example hung about him for some time, obscuring the nobleness which was to shine out afterwards. He desired above all things the ascendancy of the Church; as to the means of obtaining which, he had fewer scruples than became a minister of Him who rebuked the attack on Malchus. He closed the Novatian church, took away its sacred ornaments, and deprived its Bishop of his property.

The Jews of Alexandria—a powerful body during many centuries—had procured the disgrace and punishment of Hierax, an admirer of Cyril’s sermons. Cyril, naturally indignant, menaced the chief of their community; the Jews’ revenge was to raise a cry at midnight, “The Church of S. Alexander is on fire!” and to massacre those Christians who rushed out to save their church.

Cyril appears to have made up his mind that the Christians must right them, without expecting justice from the præfect Orestes, and he organized at daybreak a force which attacked the synagogues, expelled the Jews from Alexandria, and treated their property as rightful spoil.

Orestes, exasperated at this hasty and lawless vengeance, would not listen to the explanations which Cyril offered; and the archbishop, after vainly holding out the Gospels to enforce his attempts at a reconciliation, gave up all hopes of peace. Five hundred monks of Nitria, inflamed by a furious partisanship, entered the city and reviled the præfect as a pagan.

“I am a Christian,” he exclaimed; “Atticus of Constantinople baptized me.”

A monk named Ammonius disproved his own Christianity by throwing a stone at the præfect, which inflicted a ghastly wound. He was seized, and expired under tortures; but Cyril so miserably forgot himself as to call this ruffian an “admirable” martyr, a proceeding of which he was afterwards heartily ashamed.

Then followed a darker tragedy. Hypatia, a learned lady, and teacher of philosophy, and a heathen, who had great influence in the city in opposing Christianity, was supposed to have embittered Orestes against Cyril; and some fiery zealots, headed by a reader of the church, named Peter, dragged her from her house and tore her to pieces, limb from limb. Cyril was no party to this hideous deed, but it was the work of men whose passions he had originally called out.

Had there been no onslaught on the synagogues, there would have been no murder of Hypatia. The people of Alexandria were singularly fiery and given to civil contensions. Gibbon says of them,

“The most trifling occasion, a transient scarcity of flesh or lentils, the neglect of an accustomed salutation, a mistake of precedency in the public baths, or even a religious dispute, were at any time sufficient to kindle a sedition among that vast multitude, whose resentments were furious and implacable.”

A ferocious civil war which lasted twelve years, and raged within the city, till a considerable portion had been reduced to ruins in the reign of Valerian, had originated in a dispute between a soldier and a townsman about a pair of shoes.

Pride and Prejudice

Cyril had inherited all his uncle’s violent prejudice against S. John Chrysostom. Pope Innocent had not been able to procure the vindication of his memory at Constantinople. But soon after his death, Atticus his successor, a good man, but weak and timid, and a declared enemy to Chrysostom, who had resisted the Pope’s exhortation, yielded to the popular feeling, and to the advice of the Emperor Theodosius, who thought that “for peace and unity there would be no harm in writing a dead man’s name on a diptych,” i.e., on the table of names of the departed prayed for at the Mass.

Atticus excused himself for this compliance in a letter to Cyril, in which he observed that, in these Eucharistic commemorations, laymen as well as bishops were included. The nephew of Theophilus was not likely to be thus appeased; and he extracted from the messengers of Atticus the confession that Chrysostom was now commemorated as a Bishop.

In his view, Chrysostom was simply a man who had forfeited the episcopate; and he called upon Atticus to “expunge from the sacerdotal catalogue the name of one who was no minister,” distinctly intimating that unless he resolved to uphold the authority of the Council of the Oak, he would forfeit the communion of the patriarchate of Alexandria.

But as time passed, Cyril thought better of this, and regretted his violence and prejudice. Isidore of Pelusium, a pious abbot, wrote to him, “Put an end to these dissensions, lest you incur the judgment of God,” and urged him not to make a perpetual schism in the Church by refusing to commemorate Chrysostom. He placed the name of Chrysostom on his diptychs, and immediately was received into communion with Rome from which he had been estranged by his adherence to the prejudices of his uncle.


Atticus, patriarch of Constantinople, was succeeded in 426, by Sisinius, who died on Christmas Eve, 427. Nestorius, a Syrian bred in Antioch, of high reputation and great powers as a speaker, ascetic and studious in his habits, was consecrated to the see on April 10th, 428. His first sermon indicated a feverish polemical zeal. “Give me,” he exclaimed, addressing the Emperor, “give me the earth clear of heretics, and I will give you heaven in return! Help me to overthrow the heretics, and I will help you to overthrow the Persians.”

He began his episcopate by attacking an Arian meeting-house; the Arians set fire to it in their despair; the flames caught other buildings, and the new patriarch received the ominous name of “the Incendiary.”

The Nestorian Uprising

The early violence of Cyril ought neither to be extenuated nor exaggerated; but there was somewhat less of provocation  for the persecuting zeal of Nestorius. Shortly before Christmas, 428, a priest named Anastasius, whom the new archbishop had brought from Antioch, was preaching in S. Sophia.

In the sermon he said, “Let no one call Mary the Mother of God; for she was a human creature, of whom God could not be born.” Nestorius was present and approved; and on Christmas Day he himself began a short course of sermons, in which he called the title heathenish, and spoke of Mary’s Son as a mere man, the instrument employed, and the vesture worn by God.

Eusebius, a lawyer in the city, stood up in full church, and proclaimed that the Eternal Word Himself was born after the flesh. Nestorius denounced this doctrine; “It was not the Word that was born,” said he; “It was only the man Jesus.”

Soon after, on a festival in honour of the Virgin, probably the Annunciation, a certain Bishop Proclus preached in the great church before Nestorius. After speaking of S. Mary in glowing language, as the bush burning and unconsumed, the cloud that bore the cherub-throne, Gideon’s fleece filled with heavenly dew, he passed to the practical bearings of the Catholic doctrine.

“If the Word had not dwelt in the womb, Flesh had never sat down on the holy throne. It was necessary, either that the doom of death should be executed on all, for all have sinned, or that such a price should be paid in exchange as could fully claim the release. Man could not save, for he was under the pressure of the debt of sin. An angel could not redeem humanity, for he had lacked such a ransom as was needed. One only course remained, that the sinless God should die for sinners. It was God who out of His compassion became Man. We do not proclaim a man deified, but we confess a God Incarnate. The Self-same was in the Father’s bosom, and in the Virgin’s womb; in a mother’s arms, and on the wings of the wind. He was adored by angels, while He sat at meat with publicans. The servant buffeted Him, and creation shuddered. He was laid in the tomb, and he spread out the heavens as a curtain. O the mystery! I see the miracles, and I proclaim the Godhead; I see the sufferings and I declare the Manhood.”

Nestorius rose from his throne and rebuked the preacher. He said that to speak of God as virgin-born was erroneous, and in after sermons he argued that God who “held the circle of the earth” could not be wrapt in grave-clothes; that the Sustainer of all things could not rise from the dead. Christ, he said, was a sinless man, the image of the Godhead through His goodness; and that as a child was of the same nature as its mother, therefore that Christ could not be divine as Mary was not divine.

He allowed to Christ a divinity, but not the divinity, placing Him rather as chiefest of saints than as God. It was Arianism under another form.

Mother of God

His sermons caused a great excitement at home as well as abroad. Men saw that the question was no strife of words; laymen who felt that Catholic truth was their inheritance, no less than that of the clergy, shrank from the communion of a bishop who made void the Incarnation. Clergy began to preach against him, “They are croaking frogs,” said Nestorius, and he obtained an imperial order to silence them.

A priest began to celebrate in private, an abbot and a monk told Nestorius to his face that he was in error, and were savagely beaten and imprisoned for so doing. A monk who dared to denounce him as a heretic was scourged and exiled. Among his supporters a bishop named Dorotheus was the chief. When he preached his heresy, the congregation uttering a cry of indignation, rushed out of church, but Nestorius proceeded with the service, and administered Communion to the preacher.

The careful circulation of the archbishop’s sermons brought them into the hands of the Egyptian monks. Cyril strove to undo their effect by a letter addressed to the monks, about the end of April, 429. They would have done better, he said, by abstaining from the controversy; but it was necessary as things stood, to impress on them the positive truth.

Since Christ was Emmanuel, since He who was in the form of God assumed the form of a servant, since the Son of Man was adorable, since the Lord of glory was crucified, it was impossible to divide the persons, and separate the manhood from the Godhead. To sum up all in one simple formula; “If our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how can His Mother, the holy Virgin, be not Mother of God?”

He guarded himself from misrepresentation by clearly confessing that it was from Mary that Christ derived His human nature, but that it was not from her that He derived His divine nature. He was God, from her He received His humanity, but to her He was not indebted for His Godhead.

In the Face of Heresy

About Midsummer he wrote his first letter to Nestorius, urging him not to produce scandal and a schism by asserting that God dwelt in Christ instead of proclaiming the Catholic doctrine that Christ was God.

In February, 430, S. Cyril wrote his second letter to Nestorius—the great Epistle which received in subsequent councils a formal sanction from the Church. He set forth his faith in the clearest terms, insisting on a real, not a merely moral union of God and Man in Christ. Nestorius replied, showing a strange confusion of mind in the matter, which contrasts painfully with the bright, crisp, and lucid style of Cyril. He was ready to allow that Christ was an association of God with the man, Jesus; but he would not admit that God and man made one Christ.

Now it was that Cyril shone as a bright star in the firmament of the Church, proved a pillar in the house of God, sustaining the truth. For this God had raised him up, to maintain in the face of heresy, the Unity of the Person in our Blessed Lord. What St. Athanasius had done for the Church when assailed by Arianism, Cyril was called to perform when she was beaten by Nestorianism. “I care not for distress, or insult, or bitterest revilings,” said he in a letter to his clergy, “Only let the faith be kept safe.”

Early in August a council met at Rome. Pope Celestine quoted a stanza from the Christmas hymn of S. Ambrose:—

“Redeemer of Earth’s tribes forlorn.
Come, show Thyself the Virgin-born;
Let every age the marvel greet—
No common birth for God were meet.”

“Thus,” he added, “Our brother Cyril’s meaning, when he calls Mary, the mother of God, entirely agrees with Talis decet partus Deum.” He cited St. Hilary and St. Damasus as teaching the same doctrine of One Christ; and the council pronounced Nestorius guilty of heresy.

On August 11th, he wrote to Cyril, accepting his doctrinal statements, and giving him an important commission.

“Join the authority of our see to your own, and freely occupying our place, execute this sentence with strictness and rigour; so that, unless in ten days time from this monition, he condemns in writing his unholy doctrine, and assures us that he holds that faith concerning the birth of Christ our God, which is held by the Roman Church, and by your Holiness’ Church, and by all who belong to our religion, your Holiness may provide for his Church, and let him know that he must needs be cut off from our body.”

The Council of Ephesus

On the 19th of November, the emperor Theodosius, at the request of Nestorius and his opponents, summoned a general council to meet at Ephesus at the ensuing Pentecost. Besides the circular letter, Cyril received a private one, angry in tone, from the emperor, asking, “Why have you despised us, and raised all this agitation, as if a rash impetuosity were more befitting than accurate inquiry, or audacity and versatility more pleasing to us than good taste and simple dealing.”

In a council held at Alexandria, Nestorius was declared heretical, and was excommunicated.

On Sunday, December 7th, four bishops entered the cathedral of Constantinople, during the time of service, and presented to Nestorius the letters of Celestine and Cyril excommunicating him.
About four or five days before Whit-sunday, which in 431, fell on June 7th, Cyril reached Ephesus, accompanied by fifty bishops, and found that Nestorius had arrived with sixteen before him. The Roman legates, Arcadius and Projectus, bishops, with Philip, a priest, were on their way.

Pope Celestine had already expressed to Cyril his opinion, that if Nestorius were minded to repent, he should by all means be received, notwithstanding the sentence already pronounced by Rome and Alexandria. The bishops of the patriarchate of Antioch had not yet arrived. The church of Africa devastated by the Vandals could send no prelate; but Capreolus of Carthage wrote, entreating the bishops to maintain the ancient doctrine.

Hostilities were, in one sense, commenced between the parties before the opening of the council. Memnon, bishop of Ephesus, excluded the Nestorians from the churches, so that they had no place wherein to celebrate Pentecost, or to say matins and vespers.

Acacius, bishop of Melitene, endeavoured to convert Nestorius. A bishop of the Nestorian party said to him, “The Son who suffered is one, God the Word is another.” Acacius withdrew in horror; but another saying that fell from Nestorius impressed itself yet more indelibly upon every Catholic heart. On June 19th, some prelates were arguing with him on the divinity of Jesus.

“For my part,” said he, several times over, “I cannot say that a child of two or three months old was God.” Thus he declared his disbelief in the foundation doctrine of Christianity.

Nestorius vs Church

On Sunday, June 21st, a fortnight had elapsed from the time fixed for the meeting of the council. The Bishops were weary of waiting; illness and even death, had appeared among them; and John, patriarch of Antioch had not arrived. The majority therefore sent a message to Nestorius, telling him that the council should begin, next day. On Monday, June 22nd, when 198 Bishops assembled in S. Mary’s Church, he personally remonstrated against the council being opened till the Bishops of the patriarchate of Antioch had arrived. It was in vain; Cyril and the majority absolutely refused to delay.

On the episcopal throne, in the centre of the assembly, were laid the Gospels; the Bishops sat on each side; Cyril, as highest in rank, and as holding the proxy of Cœlestine, until the arrival of the Roman legates, presided in the assembly. It would have been better if some other bishop had discharged this office; but it appears that Cyril’s part in the proceedings was mainly that of a producer of evidence, and that he called on the council to judge between himself and Nestorius.

A second citation was then directed to Nestorius; but soldiers with clubs denied the deputies access to his presence, and he sent out word that he would attend when all the bishops had reached the city.

A third message was then dispatched to him; care being taken to treat him simply as an accused bishop, not as a condemned heretic. Again the rude sentinels thrust back the deputies. “If you stand here all night, you will get no satisfaction; Nestorius has ordered that no one from your council shall enter.” They returned to S. Mary’s. “Nestorius,” said the Bishop of Jerusalem, “shows a bad conscience. Let us now proceed to compare all recent statements with the creed of Nicæa.”

When the great confession had been read, then the second letter of Cyril to Nestorius, and extracts from the sermons of the accused, the fathers proceeded to depose and excommunicate Nestorius, in the name of “our Lord Jesus Christ whom he has blasphemed.” The sentence was signed by all the bishops; the first signature being, “I, Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, subscribed to the judgment of the council.”

It was now late in the summer evening. The bishops, on issuing from the church, were welcomed with loud applause by the people, who had thronged the streets all day. Torches and perfumes were burnt before them, as they proceeded to their several abodes; and thus ended the memorable first session of the council of Ephesus.

It is interesting to think that while the bishops were going home that night, after a day of intense excitement, Paulinus of Nola was calmly giving up his soul. His last words, breathed forth in a low chant at the hour of vespers, were those of Psalm cxxxi. 17, (cxxxii.) Paravi lucernam Christo meo. “I have prepared a lamp for my Christ.”

A Turn of the Tide

On Saturday, June 27th, John of Antioch arrived with fifteen Bishops. The council sent deputies to his lodging: he consented to see them, but permitted Count Irenæus, a friend of Nestorius, to beat them cruelly. Dusty and travel-stained as he was, John proceeded to assemble a conclave of the partisans of Nestorius, numbering forty-three Bishops, and deposed Cyril of Alexandria, and Memnon of Ephesus.

Theodosius, the emperor, prejudiced in favour of Nestorius, and thinking, perhaps not without reason, that the prelates of Antioch should have been awaited before the opening of the council, wrote on June 29th, in severe terms, ordering that no bishop should leave Ephesus until the doctrinal question had been fairly scrutinized, and declaring the proceedings null.

And now the Roman legates arrived, and the second session was held in Memnon’s house, July 10th. Celestine’s letter to the council, dated May 8, expressed full confidence that the council would join with the legates in executing what Rome had already decided was good. The bishops answered by applause, “One Cœlestine, one Cyril, one faith of the council, one faith of the world!”

Next day, in the third session, the council wrote to the emperor that the whole Church was against Nestorius; and in a fourth session John, patriarch of Antioch, who supported the heretic, was deposed and excommunicated. The emperor then sent his high-treasurer, Count John, to compose the differences in a summary manner. On his arrival he at once arrested Cyril, Memnon, and Nestorius, and soldiers were stationed at the doors of their bed-rooms, to keep them close prisoners.

The bishops of the council, in a letter to the clergy of Constantinople, described the distress which they were enduring. “We are killed with the heat, the air is unhealthy, there is a funeral nearly every day, the servants are all gone home sick; but if they make us die here, we will not alter what Christ has through us ordained.”

On All Sides

Many of the bishops were very ill; some had been obliged to sell all that they had, in order to pay their expenses. Cyril wrote also, but there was a difficulty in getting these letters carried to their destination. The Nestorians of Constantinople beset the ships and the roads, and would allow no ordinary messenger to enter the city. It was determined to give them into the care of a beggar, who might carry them in the hollow of a cane on which he leant. This ingenious device succeeded.

The clergy of Constantinople received the sentence of deposition pronounced on their patriarch, and the letters of Cyril and the council. The clergy openly addressed the emperor on behalf of Cyril. There was a great stir among the monks, who were for the most part determined enemies of Nestorianism.

The aged abbot Dalmatius had not left his monastery for nearly fifty years. The emperor had vainly striven to make him take a part in the processional services during earthquakes. But now he felt, as he expressed it, that in a cause which so truly belonged to God he could not be inactive. He issued forth, at the head of a solemn train of monks and abbots, chanting in two choirs, which moved towards the palace; the abbots were at once admitted to the presence of Theodosius, and he having read the letter of the council, the emperor said, “If these things are so, let the Bishops come hither.”

“They are prevented,” said Dalmatius.

“No they are not,” said the emperor.

“They are under arrest,” persisted the abbot. The conference ended to the satisfaction of the abbots; they came forth, and directed the multitude without to proceed to a large church at the extremity of the city. Again the procession swept onwards; monks, bearing wax tapers, led the psalmody, without which in those days no great religious movement was conceivable; and the inspiring, “O praise God in His holiness,” was thundered forth as they approached their destination.

The church was thronged with eager listeners; Dalmatius caused the letter of the council to be read, and then described the interview with Theodosius. Dalmatius might well write to the council, “I have not neglected your wishes.” His interposition was a great event; he had proved too many for the Nestorians. By his simple devotion and impressive firmness, the old recluse had given force and unity to a great mass of public feeling, and broken the spell by which a party had bound the emperor.

Reconciled to Faith

It is unnecessary to follow the tangled threads of party strife much further. Theodosius confirmed the decree of the council, and on Sunday, Oct. 25th, 431, a new patriarch was consecrated to fill the room of Nestorius. John of Antioch had been led astray by party feeling, and in faith he had not been really heretical; his mind like that of other supporters of Nestorius was bewildered, and fearing lest Cyril should fall in the opposite error, that of Apollinaris, which lost one nature in the other, making of Christ but one nature, he had adopted the side of Nestorius.

Now he was reconciled to Cyril, who gladly met him halfway, and by mutual explanation blew away the dust of strife, and found that their faith was identical. John sent Paul, Bishop of Emesa, to Alexandria with this confession,

“We confess our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, to be perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and a body; before the ages begotten of the Father according to His Godhead, but for us and for our salvation, in the latter days, born of the Virgin Mary according to His Manhood; of one essence with the Father as to Godhead, of one essence with us as to Manhood. For there took place an union of two natures; wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this notion of the union without confusion, we confess Holy Mary to be Mother of God, because God the Word was incarnate and made man, and from His very conception united to Himself the temple taken from her.”

This formulary Cyril gladly accepted as orthodox, and then, and not till then, Paul of Emesa was permitted to attend the church service, and invited to preach, as a Catholic Bishop, on Christmas Day. The scene that ensued was a very striking one. He began with the angelic hymn, proceeded to Isaiah vii. 14, and then pronounced the momentous words, “Thus Mary, Mother of God, brings forth Emmanuel!”

The church rang with joyful cries; “Lo, this is the faith! ‘Tis God’s gift, orthodox Cyril! This is what we wanted to hear!” Paul resumed, and presently enforced both sides of the great verity. “A combination of two perfect natures, I mean Godhead and Manhood, constitutes for us the one Son, the one Christ, the one Lord.”

Again the people shouted applause; “Welcome, orthodox Bishop, the worthy to the worthy!”

The Death of a Fiery Spirit

S. Cyril died in June, 444, after a pontificate of thirty-two years, during the last fifteen of which he may be said to have as truly lived for the truth of the unity of the two natures in Christ, as his mightiest predecessor, S. Athanasius, had lived for the truth of the Divinity of Christ.

Doubtless, the fiery spirit, which Cyril could not always restrain, impelled him, during this great controversy, into some steps which show that he was not an Athanasius. But modern critics of his character have said more than enough on this point, and too little on points of a different kind. Historical justice can never demand that we should take the hardest possible view of his conduct at the opening of the council of Ephesus, and ignore the noble unselfishness, the patience in explaining over and over again his own statements, the readiness in welcoming substantial agreement on the part of others, in a word, the “power, and love, and command” which made him a true minister of peace in the reunion of 433.

We need not dwell on other instances in which he showed a remarkable forbearance, as when he bore without irritation the schooling of St. Isidore; on his care for the due probation of aspirants to the priesthood, his depth and acuteness as a dogmatic theologian, his faith and thankfulness when treated as a deposed prisoner.

The way not to understand him is to substitute a haughty and heartless dogmatist for the ardent, anxious, often the deeply suffering man, who, against an opponent strong in sophistry, in court influence, and in church power, persevered in defending the simple truth of the Scriptural and Nicene mystery, that “the one Lord Jesus Christ was very God of very God, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate, and was made Man.”

Courtesy of 'Lives of the Saints' by Rev. S. Baring-Gould

Background image CC Daniel Mennerich

Avatar CC Nick Thompson | Cover Photo CC Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

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