Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume II: February. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Meletius, Patriarch of Antioch, Confessor
HE was of one of the best families of Lesser Armenia, and born at Melitene, which Strabo and Pliny place in Cappadocia; but Ptolemy and all succeeding writers in Lesser Armenia, of which province it became the capital. The saint, in his youth, made fasting and mortification his choice, in the midst of every thing that could flatter the senses. His conduct was uniform and irreproachable, and the sweetness and affability of his temper gained him the confidence and esteem both of the Catholics and Arians: for he was a nobleman of charming simplicity and sincerity, and a great lover of peace. Eustathius, bishop of Sebaste, a semi-Arian, being deposed by the Arians, in a council held at Constantinople, in 360, Meletius was promoted to that see; but meeting with too violent opposition, left it, and retired first into the desert, and afterwards to the city of Beræa, in Syria, of which Socrates falsely supposes him to have been bishop. The patriarchial church of Antioch had been oppressed by the Arians, ever since the banishment of Eustathius, in 331. Several succeeding bishops, who were intruded into that chair, were infamous abettors of that heresy. Eudoxus, the last of these, had been removed from the see of Germanicia to that of Antioch, upon the death of Leontius, an Arian like himself, but was soon expelled by a party of Arians, in a sedition, and he shortly after usurped the see of Constantinople. Both the Arians and several Catholics agreed to raise St. Meletius to the patriarchal chair at Antioch, and the emperor ordered him to be put in possession of that dignity in 361; but some among the Catholics refused to acknowledge him, regarding his election as irregular, on account of the share which the Arians had in it. The Arians hoped that he would declare himself of their party, but were undeceived when the Emperor Constantius arriving at Antioch, he was ordered, with certain other prelates, to explain in his presence that text of the Proverbs,1 concerning the wisdom of God: The Lord hath created me in the beginning of his ways. George of Laodicea first explained it in an Arian sense, next Acacius of Cæsarea, in a sense bordering on that heresy: but the truth triumphed in the mouth of Meletius, who, speaking the third,2 showed that this text is to be understood not of a strict creation, but of a new state or being, which the Eternal Wisdom received in his incarnation. This public testimony thunderstruck the Arians, and Eudoxus, then the bishop of Constantinople, prevailed with the emperor to banish him into Lesser Armenia, thirty days after his installation. The Arians intruded the impious Euzoius into that see, who formerly being deacon at Alexandria, had been deposed and expelled the church, with the priest and arch-heretic Arius, by St. Alexander, bishop of Alexandria. From this time is dated the famous schism of Antioch, in 360, though it drew its origin from the banishment of St. Eustathius about thirty years before. Many zealous Catholics always adhered to St. Eustathius, being convinced that his faith was the only cause of his unjust expulsion. But others, who were orthodox in their principles, made no scruple, at least for some time, to join communion in the great church with the intruded patriarchs, in which their conscience was more easily imposed upon, as, by the artifices of the Arians, the cause of St. Eustathius appeared merely personal and secular, or at least mixed; and his two first short-lived successors, Eulalius and Euphronius, do not appear to have declared themselves Arians, otherwise than by their intrusion. Placillus the Third joined in condemning Saint Athanasius in the councils of Tyre, in 335, and of Antioch, in 341. His successors, Stephen I., (who at Philippopolis opposed the council at Sardica,) Leontius, and Eudoxus, appeared every where leagued with the heads of the Arians. But the intrusion of the Euzoius, with the expulsion of St. Meletius, rendered the necessity of an entire separation in communion more notorious; and many who were orthodox in their faith, yet through weakness or ignorance of facts, had till then communicated with the Arians in the great church, would have no communion with Euzoius, or his adherents; but under the protection of Diodorus and Flavian, then eminent and learned laymen, afterwards bishops, held their religious assemblies with their own priests, in the church of the apostles without the city, in a suburb called Palæa, that is, the old suburb or church. They attempted in vain to unite themselves to the Eustathians, who for thirty years past had held their separate assemblies; but these refused to admit them, or to allow the election of Meletius, on account of the share the Arians had therein: they therefore continued their private assemblies within the city. The Emperor Constantius, in his return from the Persian war, with an intention to march against his cousin Julian Cæsar, in the West, arrived at Antioch, and was baptized by the Arian bishop Euzoius; but died soon after, in his march at Mopsucrêne, in Cilicia, on the 3rd of November, 361. Julian, having allowed the banished bishops to go to their respective churches, St. Meletius returned to Antioch about the end of the year 362, but had the affliction to see the breach made by the schism grow wider. The Eustathians not only refused still to receive him, but proceeded to choose a bishop for themselves. This was Paulinus, a person of great meekness and piety, who had been ordained priest by St. Eustathius himself, and had constantly attended his zealous flock. Lucifer, bishop of Cagliari, passing by Antioch in his return from exile, consecrated Paulinus bishop, and by this precipitate action, riveted the schism which divided this church near fourscore and five years, and in which the discussion of the facts upon which the right of the claimants was founded, was so intricate that the saints innocently took part on both sides. It was an additional affliction to St. Meletius, to see Julian the apostate make Antioch the seat of the superstitious abominations of idolatry, which he restored; and the generous liberty with which he opposed them, provoked that emperor to banish him a second time. But Jovian soon after succeeding that unhappy prince, in 363, our saint returned to Antioch. Then it appeared that the Arians were men entirely guided by ambition and interest, and that as nothing could be more insolent than they had shown themselves when backed by the temporal power, so nothing was more cringing and submissive, when they were deprived of that protection. For the emperor warmly embracing the Nicene faith, following in all ecclesiastical matters the advice of St. Athanasius, and expressing a particular regard for St. Meletius, the moderate Arians, with Acasius of Cæsarea, in Palestine, at their head, went to Antioch, where our saint held a council of twenty-seven bishops, and there subscribed an orthodox profession of faith.
Jovian dying, after a reign of eight months, Valens became emperor of the East, who was at first very orthodox, but afterwards, seduced by the persuasions of his wife, he espoused the Arian heresy, and received baptism from Eudoxus, bishop of Constantinople, who made him promise upon oath to promote the cause of that sect. The cruel persecution which this prince raised against the church, and the favour which he showed not only to the Arians, but also to Pagans, Jews, and all who were not Catholics, deterred not St. Meletius from exerting his zeal in defence of the orthodox faith. This prince coming from Cæsarea, where he had been vanquished by the constancy of St. Basil, arrived at Antioch in April, 372, where he left nothing unattempted to draw Meletius over to the interest of his sect; but meeting with no success, ordered him a third time into banishment. The people rose tumultuously to detain him amongst them, and threw stones at the governor, who was carrying him off, so that he only escaped with his life by our saints stepping between him and the mob, and covering him with his cloak. It is only in this manner that the disciples of Jesus Christ revenge injuries, as St. Chrysostom observes.3 Hermant and Fleury suppose this to have happened at his first banishment. By the order of Valens, he was conducted into Lesser Armenia, where he made his own estate at Getasus, near Nicocopolis, the place of his residence. His flock at Antioch, by copying his humility, modesty, and patience, amidst the persecution which fell upon them, showed themselves the worthy disciples of so great a master. They were drove out of the city, and from the neighbouring mountains, and the banks of the river, where they attempted to hold their assemblies; some expired under torments, others were thrown into the Orontes. In the mean time, Valens allowed the Pagans to renew their sacrifices, and to celebrate publicly the feasts of Jupiter, Ceres, and Bacchus.4 Sapor, king of Persia, having invaded Armenia took by treachery king Arsaces, bound him in silver chains, (according to the Persian custom of treating royal prisoners,) and caused him to perish in prison. To check the progress of these ancient enemies of the empire, Valens sent an army towards Armenia, and marched himself to Edessa in Mesopotamia. Thus the persecution at Antioch was abated, to which the death of Valens put an end, who was burnt by the Goths in a cottage after his defeat near Adrianople, in 378. His nephew Gratian, who then became master of the East, went in all haste to Constantinople, by his general, Theodosius vanquished the Goths, and by several edicts recalled the Catholic prelates, and restored the liberty of the church in the Eastern empire. St. Meletius, upon his return, found that the schism had begun to engage distant churches in the division. Most of the Western prelates adhered to the Election of Paulinus. St. Athanasius communicated with him, as he had always done with his friends the Eustathian Catholics, though, from the beginning, he disapproved of the precipitation of Lucifer of Cagliari in ordaining him, and he afterwards communicated also with St. Meletius. St. Basil, St. Amphilochius of Iconium, St. Pelagius of Laodicea, St. Eusebius of Samosata, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Chrysostom, and the general council of Constantinople, with almost the unanimous suffrage of all the East, zealously supported the cause of St. Meletius. Theodosius having, after his victory over the Goths, been associated by Gratian, and taken possession of the Eastern empire, sent his general, Sapor, to Antioch, to re-establish there the Catholic pastors. In an assembly which was held in his presence, in 379, St. Meletius, Paulinus, and Vitalis, whom Apollinarius had consecrated bishop of his party there, met, and St. Meletius addressing himself to Paulinus, made the following proposal:5 Since our sheep have but one religion, and the same faith, let it be our business to unite them into one flock; let us drop all disputes for precedency, and agree to feed them together. I am ready to share this see with you, and let the survivor have the care of the whole flock. After some demur the proposal was accepted, and Sapor put St. Meletius in possession of the churches which he had governed before his last banishment, and of those which were in the hands of the Arians, and Paulinus was continued in his care of the Eustathians. St. Meletius zealously reformed the disorders which heresy and divisions had produced, and provided his church with excellent ministers. In 379 he presided in a council at Antioch, in which the errors of Apollinarius were condemned without any mention of his name. Theodosius, whom Gratian declared Augustus, and his partner in the empire at Sirmich, on the 19th of January, soon after his arrival at Constantinople, concurred zealously in assembling the second general council which was opened at Constantinople, in the year 381. Only the prelates of the Eastern empire assisted, so that we find no mention of legates of Pope Damasus, and it was general, not in the celebration, but by the acceptation of the universal church. St. Meletius presided as the first patriarch that was present: in it one hundred and fifty Catholic bishops and thirty-six of the Macedonian sect made their appearance; but all these latter chose rather to withdraw than to retract their error, or confess the divinity of the Holy Ghost. The council approved of the election of St. Gregory of Nazianzen to the see of Constantinople, though he resigned it to satisfy the scruples and complaints of some who, by mistake, thought it made against the Nicene canon, which forbade translations of bishops; which could not be understood of him, who had never been allowed to take possession of his former see. The council then proceeded to condemn the Macedonian heresy, and to publish the Nicene creed, with certain additions. In the second, among the seven canons of discipline, the two oriental patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch were acknowledged. In the third, the prerogative of honour, next to the see of Rome, is given to that of Constantinople, which before was subject to the metropolitan of Heraclea in Thrace. This canon laid the foundation of the patriarchal dignity to which that see was raised by the council of Chalcedon, though not allowed for some time after in the West. St. Meletius died at Constantinople whilst the council was sitting, to the inexpressible grief of the fathers, and of the good emperor. By an evangelical meekness, which was his characteristic, he had converted the various trials that he had gone through into occasions of virtue, and had exceedingly endeared himself to all that had the happiness of his acquaintance. St. Chrysostom assures us, that his name was so venerable to his flock at Antioch, that they gave it their children, and mentioned it with all possible respect. They cut his image upon their seals and upon their plate, and carved it in their houses. His funeral was performed at Constantinople with the utmost magnificence, and attended by the fathers of the council, and all the Catholics of the city. One of the most eminent among the prelates, probably Saint Amphilochius of Iconium, pronounced his panegyric in the council. St. Gregory of Nyssa made his funeral oration in presence of the emperor in the great church, in the end of which he says: He now sees God face to face, and prays for us, and for the ignorance of the people. St. Meletiuss body was deposited in the church of the apostles, till it was removed before the end of the same year, with the utmost pomp, to Antioch, at the emperors expense, and interred near the relics of Saint Babylas, in the church which he had erected in honour of that holy martyr. Five years after, Saint Chrysostom, whom our saint had ordained deacon, spoke his elegant panegyric on the 12th of February, on which his name occurs in the Menæa, and was inserted by Baronius in the Roman Martyrology; though it is uncertain whether this be the day of his death, or of his translation to Antioch. On account of his three banishments and great sufferings, he is styled a martyr by St. John Damascen.6 His panegyrics, by St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Chrysostom, are extant. See also Socrates, l. 5. c. 5. p. 261. Sozom. l. 4. c. 28. p. 586. Thodoret, l. 3. c. 5. p. 128. l. 2. c. 27. p. 634. Jos. Assem. in Cal. Univer. t. 6. p. 125.