Saints of the Day – Cyril of Alexandria, Doctor

detail of a statue of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora do Sameiro, Braga, Portugal; date unknown, artist unknown; photographed on 5 May 2013 by Joseolgon; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, c.376-80; died there 444; named “Doctor of the Incarnation” by Pope Leo XIII in 1882; known as the “Seal of the Fathers” in the East; feast day formerly on January 28 and February 9.

“Hail, Mother and Virgin, imperishable temple of the Godhead, venerable treasure of the whole world, crown of virginity, support of the true faith on which the Church is founded throughout the whole world. “Mother of God, who contained the infinite God under your heart, whom no space can contain: Through you the Most Holy Trinity is adored and glorified, demons are vanquished, satan cast down from heaven and into hell, and our fallen nature again assumed into heaven.

“Through you the human race, held captive in the bonds of idolatry, arrives at the knowledge of the truth. What more shall I say of you? Hail, through whom kings rule, through whom the only-begotten Son of God has become a star of light to those who were sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. Amen.

“All of us are united with Christ inasmuch as we have received Him who is one and indivisible in our bodies. Therefore we owe the service of our members to Him rather than to ourselves.”

– Saint Cyril of Alexandria

Bishop Cyril of Alexandria was severe, authoritarian, and violent in an age of the same. Though he had read the profane writers during his classical and theological studies, he made it a rule never to advance any doctrine that he had not learned from the ancient fathers. Although his writing revealed great precision of thought, he often said that he regretted that he did not use a clearer style and write purer Greek. He was ordained by his uncle Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria, whom he accompanied to Constantinople in 403. He was present at the Synod of Oak during which Theophilus engineered the deposition of Saint John Chrysostom’s, patriarch of Constantinople, whom he himself believed to be guilty. After his uncle’s death in 412, he was raised to the see of Alexandria following a riot between Cyril’s supporters and those of his rival Timotheus.

He immediately moved to close the churches of the Novatians and have their sacred vessels seized. He drove out the Jews and stirred up the monks. Cyril then attacked the Neoplatonists, angering the imperial prefect, Orestes, although his actions were approved by Emperor Theodosius. This disagreement had a tragic outcome.

Hypatia, a pagan woman, was the most influential teacher of Neoplatonic philosophy in Alexandria. Disciples flocked to her from everywhere. Acting upon the belief that Hypatia had turned the governor against Cyril, a mob attacked her in her chariot, dragged her into the street, and tore her body to pieces. It has never been established that Cyril was directly concerned with the crime, but it was the work of those who looked to him as their leader.

In 428, Nestorius, a priest-monk of Antioch, was made archbishop Constantinople. He taught the clergy that there were two distinct persons in Christ: that of God and that of man, joined only by a moral union. He also held that Mary was not the Mother of God since Christ was divine and not human, and thus should not be called Theotokos, or God-bearer.

In 430, Cyril sent him a mild expostulation explaining that such a division made it impossible to be certain that Jesus preached the truth about God the Father. Nestorius answered rudely. Both appealed to Pope Saint Celestine I, who condemned the Nestorian doctrine and excommunicated Nestorius unless he were to publicly retract his position within ten days of receiving the sentence. Cyril was appointed to see the sentence fulfilled, and sent Nestorius his third and last summons – twelve anathemas to be signed by him as proof of his orthodoxy.

Nestorius held fast, and Cyril, who enjoyed conflict, persuaded the pope to summon the third general council at Ephesus in 431. Cyril presided over the council attended by 200 bishops. Nestorius was present in town but would not appear. His sermons were read, and condemned, and a sentence of excommunication and deposition were read.

Six days later, archbishop John of Antioch arrived with 42 bishops who had been unable to reach the meeting in time. They supported Nestorius, although they did not follow his practice. Instead of meeting with the council, they met together and presumed to depose Cyril, accusing him of heresy. Both sides appealed to the emperor, and he ordered Cyril and Nestorius to be arrested. When three legates from Pope Celestine arrived, they confirmed the council’s condemnation of Nestorius, approved Cyril’s conduct, and invalidated the sentence against him.

In the years after the council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory in seeking reconciliation with the less extreme Nestorians, perhaps surprisingly so for a man of his character. Two years later Patriarch John, representing the moderate Antiochene bishops, and Cyril reached an agreement and joined in the condemnation of Nestorius, who was forced into exile.

Monophysite Copts, Syrians, and Ethiopians venerate Cyril as their chief teacher because, in stressing the truth of Christ’s divinity, Cyril uses a terminology that sometimes appears to favor Monophysitism (that Christ had only one nature). Cyril wrote treatises that clarified doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and thus prevented Nestorianism and Pelagianism from taking root in the Christian community.

Cyril insisted on two essential facts about Jesus – however difficult Christians might find it to hold them together: (1) that Jesus was begotten by God the Father before all ages; and (2) that Jesus was also begotten in the flesh of the Virgin Mary.

He is considered the most brilliant theologian of Alexandrian tradition, although his stubborn rejection and occasional misinterpretation of his opponents’ beliefs have been criticized by scholars. Nevertheless, it is as a theologian rather than a bishop that his memory is held in honor.

His writings are characterized by accurate thinking, precise exposition, and great reasoning skill. Among his writings are commentaries on John, Luke, and the Pentateuch, treatises on dogmatic theology, an apologia against Julian the Apostate, and letters, including one on hymns, and sermons (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, White).

Saint Cyril will be recognized as an old, bearded bishop in the vestments of the Eastern Church with a book, pointing towards heaven. He may have the Virgin and Child appearing before him (Roeder). When represented with the other Greek fathers, such as in this Greek icon with Saint Athanasius, he is generally distinguished by name (White).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 30 June 2020. Web. 12 July 2020. <>