Life and Soul

Saint of the week: Cyril of Alexandria (February 9)

Cyril of Alexandria was a central figure in the Church of late antiquity. He is counted among the Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and also accorded titles such as Pillar of Faith and Seal of all the Fathers.

But he is probably best known for his dispute with Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, which ended up causing the split with what became known as the Nestorian church. More controversially still, he inflamed tensions between Christians and the Jews of Alexandria, whose community dated back to the time of Alexander the Great.

Cyril was born in AD376 in Egypt and was well connected. His mother’s brother Theophilus became Patriarch of Alexandria and Cyril was well educated in theology, biblical studies and the humanities. After his uncle died Cyril was made patriarch, aged just 36, and immediately began persecuting the heretical Novatians.

He also clashed with the city’s Jewish population. Although it seems that both sides engaged in violence, the conflict ended with Cyril expelling the Jewish community from the city. This sparked antagonism between different Christian groups, too, which lasted for years, and led to several deaths.

It’s fair to say that Cyril was a man of his difficult, violent time. But he is venerated for his homilies and mariological works. Among the works that survive are his Commentaries on the Old Testament and St John’s Gospel, and his attack on Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. He died in AD444.