ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ
|St. Meletius the confessor 25th Patriarch of Antioch, February 12|
Patriarch of Antioch, born in Melitene (now Malatya, Turkey), died at Antioch, 381. Before occupying the See of Antioch he had ordained Bishop of Sebaste (Sivas, Turkey). He left it because of the rudeness of its people and lived a solitary life, then transfer from Sebaste to Beroea (Aleppo) and then to Antioch; his elevation to Sebaste may date from the year 357 or 358. His sojourn in that city was short and not free from vexations.
Asia Minor and Syria were troubled at that time by theological disputes of an Arian, or semi-Arian character. Under Eustathius (324-337) Antioch had been one of the centers of Nicene orthodoxy. This great man was set aside. On the death of Leontius (344-357), Eudoxius of Germanicia, one of the most influential Arians, he was chosen to the vacant See of antioch. He held it only a short time, then he was banished to Armenia, and in 359 the Council of Seleucia appointed a successor named Annanius, who was scarcely installed when he was exiled. Eudoxius was restored to favour in 360, and made Bishop of Constantinople, whereby the Antiochene Episcopal succession was re-opened. From all sides the bishops assembled for the election. The Acacians were the dominant party. Nevertheless the choice seems to have been a compromise. Meletius, who had resigned his see of Sebaste and who was a personal friend of Acacius, was elected. The choice was generally satisfactory.
Meletius doubtless believed that truth lay in delicate distinctions. He was absent from Antioch when elected, and had not been even sounded concerning his doctrinal leanings. Men were weary of interminable discussion, and the kindly, gentle temper of Meletius seemed to promise the much- desired peace. The qualities of Meletius were genuine; a simple life, pure morals, sincere piety and affable manners. He had no transcendent merit, unless the even harmonious balance of his Christian virtues might appear transcendent. The new bishop held the affection of the large and turbulent population he governed, and was esteemed by such men as St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil, and even his adversary St. Epiphanius. St. Gregory Nazianzen tells us that he was a very pious man, simple and without guile, full of godliness; peace shone on his countenance, and those who saw him trusted and respected him. He was what he was called, and his Greek name revealed it, for there was honey in his disposition as well as his name. On his arrival at Antioch he was greeted by an immense concourse of Christians and Jews; every one wondered for which faction he would proclaim himself, and already the report was spread abroad that he was simply a partisan of the Necene Creed. Meletius took his own time. He began by reforming certain notorious abuses and instructing his people, in which latter work he might have aroused enmity had he not avoided all questions in dispute. Emperor Constans, a militant Arian, called a conference calculated to force from Meletius his inmost thought. The emperor invited several bishops then at Antioch to speak upon the chief test in the Arian controversy. "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His way" (Prov., viii, 22).
In the beginning Meletius was somewhat long and tedious, but exhibited a great Scriptural knowledge. He cautiously declared that Scripture does not contradict itself, that all language is adequate when it is a question of explaining the nature of God's only begotten Son. One does not get beyond an approximation which permits us to understand to a certain extent, and which brings us gently and progressively from visible things to hidden ones. Now, to believe in Christ is to believe that the Son is like unto the Father, His image, Who is in everything, creator of all; and not an imperfect but an adequate image, even as the effect corresponds to the cause. The generation of the only begotten Son, anterior to all time, carries with it the concepts of subsistence, stability, and exclusivism. Meletius then turned to moral considerations, but he had satisfied his hearers, chiefly by refraining from technical language and vain discussion. The orthodoxy of the bishop was fully known, and his profession of faith was a severe blow for the Arian party. St. Basil wrote the hesitating St. Epiphanius that "Meletius was the first to speak freely in favor of the truth and to fight the good fight in the reign of Constans". As Meletius ended his discourse his audience asked him for a summary of his teaching. He extended three fingers towards the people, then closed two and said, "Three Persons are conceived in the mind but it as though we addressed one only". This gesture remained famous and became a rallying sign. The Arians were not slow to avenge themselves. On vague pretexts the emperor banished Meletius to Armenia. He had occupied his See very short time (perhaps less than a month).
This exile was the immediate cause of a long and deplorable schism between the Orthodox of Antioch, henceforth divided into Meletians and Eustathians. The churches remaining in the hands of the Arians, Paulinus governed the Eustathians, while Flavius and Diodorus were the chiefs of the Meletian flock. In every family one child bore the name of Meletius, whose portrait was engraved on rings, reliefs, cups, and the walls of apartments. Meletius went into exile in the early part of the year 361. A few months later Emperor Constans died suddenly, and one of the first measures of his successor Julian was to revoke his predecessor's decrees of banishment. Meletius quite probably returned at once to Antioch, but his position was a difficult one. The Council of Alexandria (362) tried to re-establish harmony and put an end to the schism, but failed. Both parties were steadfast in their claims, while the vehemence and injudiciousness of the orthodox mediator increased the dissension, and ruined all prospects of peace. Though the election of Meletius was beyond contestation, the hot-headed Lucifer Cagliari yielded to the solicitations of the opposing faction, and instead of temporizing and awaiting Meletius's approaching return from exile, assisted by two confessors he hastily consecrated as Bishop of Antioch the Eustathian leader, Paulinus. This unwise measure was a great calamity, for it definitively established the schism. Meletius and his adherents were not responsible, and it is a peculiar injustice of history that this division should be known as the Meletian schism when the Eustathians or Paulinians were alone answerable for it. Meletius's return soon followed, also the arrival of Eusebius of Vercelli, but he could accomplish nothing under the circumstances. The persecution of Emperor Julian, whose chief residence was Antioch, brought new vexations. Both factions of the orthodox party were equally harassed and tormented, and both bore bravely their trials.
An unexpected incident made the Meletians prominent. An anti-Christian writing of Julian was answered by the aforesaid Meletian Diodorus, whom the emperor had coarsely reviled. "For many years", said the imperial apologist of Hellenism, "his chest has been sunken, his limbs withered, his cheeks flabby, his countenance livid". So intent was Julian upon describing the morbid symptoms of Diodorus that he seemed to forget Bishop Meletius. The latter doubtless had no desire to draw attention and persecution upon himself, aware that his flock was more likely to lose than to gain by it. He and two of his chorepiscopos, we are told, accompanied to the place of martyrdom two officers, Bonosus and Maximilian. Meletius also is said to have sent a convert from Antioch to Jerusalem. This, and a mention of the flight of all Antiochene ecclesiastics, led to the arbitrary supposition that the second banishment of Meletius came during Julian's reign. Be that as it may, the sudden end of the persecuting emperor and Jovian's accession must have greatly shortened the exile of Meletius. Jovian met Meletius at Antioch and showed him great respect.
Jovian's death made Arianism again triumphant and a violent persecution broke out under Emperor Valens. At the same time the quiet but persistent rivalry between Alexandria and Antioch helped the cause of Meletius. However illustrious an Egyptian patriarch might be, the Christian episcopate of Syria and Asia Minor was too national or racial, too self-centered, to seek or accept his leadership. Athanasius, indeed, remained an authoritative power in the East, but only a bishop of Antioch could unite all three who were now ready to frankly accept the Nicene Creed. In this way the role of Meletius became daily more prominent. While in his own city a minority contested his right to the see, his influence was spreading in the East, and from various parts of the empire bishops accepted his leadership. Chalcedon, Ancyra, Melitene, Pergama, Cęsarea of Cappadocia, Bostra, parts of Syria and Palestine, looked to him for direction, and this movement grew rapidly. In 363 Meletius could count on 26 bishops, in 379 more than 150 rallied around him. Theological unity was at least restored in Syria and Asia Minor.
Meletius and his disciples, however, had not been spared by the Arians. While Paulinus and his party were seemingly neglected by them, Meletius was again exiled (May, 365) to Armenia. His followers expelled from the churches, sought meeting places for worship wherever they could. This new exile, owing to a lull in the persecution, was of short duration, and probably in 367 Meletius took up again the government of his See. It was then that John, the future Chrysostom, entered the ranks of the clergy. The lull was soon over. In 371 persecution raged anew in Antioch, where Valens resided almost to the time of his death. At this time St. Basil occupied the see of Caesarea (370) and was a strong supporter of Meletius. With rare insight Basil thoroughly understood the situation, which made impossible the restoration of religious peace in the East. It was clear that the antagonism between Athanasius and Meletius protracted endlessly the conflict. Meletius, the only legitimate Bishop of Antioch, was the only acceptable one for the East; unfortunately he was going into exile for the third time.
Great was the consternation of Meletius and his community, which in the absence of the natural leader was still governed by Flavius and Diodorus, encouraged by the presence of the monk Aphrahat and the support of St. Basil. Though disheartened, the latter did not entirely give up hope of bringing the West, to a fuller understanding of the situation of the Antiochene Church.
One of the first measures of the new emperor, Gratian, was the restoration of peace in the Church and the recall of the banished bishops. Meletius therefore was reinstated (end of 378), and his flock probably met for worship in the old church. It was a heavy task for the aged bishop to re-establish the shattered fortunes of the orthodox party. The most urgent step was the ordination of bishops for the sees which had become vacant during the persecution. In 379 Meletius held a council of 146/50 bishops in order to assure the triumph of orthodoxy in the East, and published a profession of faith. The end of the schism was near at hand. Since the two factions which divided the Antiochene Church were orthodox there remained but to unite them actually, a difficult move, but easy when the death of either bishop made it possible for the survivor to exercise full authority without hurting pride or discipline. This solution Meletius recognized as early as 381, but his friendly and peace- making proposals were rejected by Paulinus who refused to come to any agreement or settlement. Meanwhile, a great council of Eastern bishops was convoked at Constantinople to appoint a bishop for the imperial city and to settle other ecclesiastical affairs.
In this Council, the presidency rightfully fell to the Bishop of Antioch, whom the Emperor Theodosius received with marked deference, nor was the imperial favor unprofitable to Meletius in his quality of president of the assembly. It began by electing Gregory of Nazianzus Bishop of Constantinople, and to the great satisfaction of the orthodox it was Meletius who enthroned him. The Council immediately proceeded to confirm the Nicene faith, but during this important session Meletius died almost suddenly. Feeling his end was near, he spent his remaining days re-emphasizing his eagerness for unity and peace. The death of one whose firmness and gentleness had kindled great expectations caused universal sorrow. The obsequies, at which Emperor Theodosius was present, took place in the church of the Apostles. The funeral panegyrics were touching and magnificent, Saint Gregory of Nyssa honoured the memory of the deceased with an eulogistic word. His death blasted many hopes and justified grave forebodings. The body was transferred from Constantinople to Antioch, where, after a second and solemn funeral service, the body of the aged bishop was laid beside his predecessor St. Babylas. But his name was to live after him, and long remained for the Eastern faithful a rallying sign and a synonym of orthodoxy.
Saint Meletios was the one who ordained as deacon the future hierarch Saint Basil the Great. And Saint Meletios also baptised and encouraged the growth under him of another of the greatest luminaries of Orthodoxy -- Saint John Chrysostom, who afterwards wrote an eulogy to his former archpastor.
Meletius was a holy man, whose ascetic life was remarkable in view of his great private wealth. He was also a man of learning and culture, and widely esteemed for his honorable, kindly and straightforward character. He is venerated as a saint and confessor in both the Orthodox Eastern Churches and Roman Catholic.