Meletius of Antioch
Bishop, b. in Melitene, Lesser Armenia; d. at Antioch, 381. Before occupying the see of Antioch he had been Bishop of Sebaste, capital of Armenia Prima. Socrates supposes a transfer from Sebaste to Bera and thence to Antioch; his elevation to Sebaste may date from the year 358 or 359. His sojourn in that city was short and not free from vexations owing to popular attachment to his predecessor Eustathius. Asia Minor and Syria were troubled at the time by theological disputes of an Arian, or semi-Arian character. Under Eustathius (324-330) Antioch had been one of the centres of Nicene orthodoxy. This great man was set aside, and his first successors, Paulinus and Eulalius held the see just a short time (330-332). Others followed, most of them unequal to their task, and the Church of Antioch was rent in twain by schism. The Eustathians remained an ardent and ungovernable minority in the orthodox camp, but details of this division escape us until the election of Leonatius (344-358). His sympathy for the Arian heresy was open, and his disciple Ætius preached pure Arianism which did not hinder his being ordained deacon. This was too much for the patience of the orthodox under the leadership of Flavius and Diodorus. Ætius had to be removed. On the death of Leontius, Eudoxius of Germanicia, one of the most influential Arians, speedily repaired to Antioch, and by intrigue secured his appointment to the vacant see. He held it only a short time, 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 tbishops 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, for Meletius had made promises to both parties so that orthodox and Arians thought him to be on their side.
Meletius doubtless believed that truth lay in delicate distinctions, but his
formula was so indefinite that even to-day, it is difficult to seize it with
precision. He was neither a thorough Nicene nor a decided Arian. Meanwhile he
passed alternately for an Anomean, an Homoiousian, an Homoian, or a Neo-Nicene,
seeking always to remain outside any inflexible classification. It is possible
that he was yet uncertain and that he expected from the contemporary theological
ferment some new and ingenious doctrinal combination, satisfactory to himself,
but above all non-committal. Fortune had favoured him thus far; 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. He was no
Athanasius, nor did unheroic Antioch wish for a man of that stamp. 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 (Proverbs 8:22).
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 established, 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 favour
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,
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 his native
Armenia. He had occupied his see less than a month.
This exile was the immediate cuase of a long and deplorable schism between the Catholics 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 in presence of the Eustathians. 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
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 chorepiscopi, 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. Just then St.
Athanasius came to Antioch by order of the emperor, and expresed to Meletius his
wish of entering into communion with him. Meletius, ill-advised, delayed
answering him, and St. Athanasius went away leaving with Paulinus, whom he had
not yet recognized as bishop, the declaration that he admitted him to his
communion. Such blundering resulted in sad consequences for the Meletian cause.
The moderation constantly shown by Athanasius, who thoroughly believed in
Meletius's orthodoxy, was not found in his successor, Peter of Alexandria, who
did not conceal his belief that Meletius was an heretic. For a long time the
position of Meletius was contested by the very ones who, it seemed, should have
established it more firmly. A council of 26 bishops at Antioch presided over by
Meletius was of more consequence, but a pamphlet ascribed to Paulinus again
raised doubts as to the orthodoxy of Meletius. Moreover, new and unsuspected
difficulties soon arose.
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 rôle of Meletius became daily more prominent. While in his own city a minority contested his right to the see and questioned his orthodoxy, his influence was spreading in the East, and from various parts of the empire bishops accepted his leadership. Chalcedon, Ancyra, Melitene, Pergama, Cæsarea 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 Cæsarea (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. In these circumstances Basil began negotiations with Meletius and Athanasius for the pacification of the East.
Aside from the inherent difficulties of the situation, the slowness of
communication was an added hindrance. Not only did Basil's representative have
to travel from Cæsarea to Armenia, and from Armenia to Alexandria, he also had
to go to Rome to obtain the sanction of Pope Damasus and the acquiescence of the
West. Notwithstanding the blunder committed at Antioch in 363, the generous
spirit of Athanasius gave hope of success, his sudden death, however (May, 373),
caused all efforts to be abandoned. Even at Rome and in the West, Basil and
Meletius were to meet with disappointement. While they wrought persistently to
restore peace, a new Antiochene community, declaring itself connected with Rome
and Athanasius, increased the number of dissidents, aggravated the rivalry, and
renewed the disputes. There were now three Antiochene churches that formally
adopted the Nicene Creed. The generous scheme of Basil for appeasement and union
had ended unfortunately, and to make matters worse, Evagrius, the chief promoter
of the attempted reconciliation, once more joined the party of Paulinus. This
important conversion won over to the intruders St. Jerome and Pope Damasus; the
very next year, and without any declaration concerning the schism, the pope
showed a decided preference for Paulinus, recognized him as bishop, greeted him
as brother, and considered him papal legate in the East. 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 Aphrates and the support of St. Basil. Though disheartened, the latter
did not entirely give up hope of bringing the West, especially the pope, to a
fuller understanding of the situation of the Antiochene Church. But the West did
not grasp the complex interests and personal issues, nor appreciate the violence
of the persecution against which the orthodox parties were struggling. In order
to enlighten these well-intentioned men, closer relations were needed and
deputies of more heroic character; but the difficulties were great and the
statu quo remained.
After many disheartening failures, there was finally a glimpse of hope. Two
legates sent to Rome, Dorotheus and Sanctissimus, returned in the spring of 377,
bringing with them cordial declarations which St. Basil instantly proceeded to
publish everywhere. These declarations pronounced anathemas against Arius and
the heresy of Apollinaris then spreading at Antioch, condemnations all the more
timely, as theological excitement was then at its highest in Antioch, and was
gradually reaching Palestine. St. Jerome entered into the conflict, perhaps
without having a thorough knowledge of the situation. Rejecting Meletius,
Vitalian, and Paulinus, he made a direct appeal to Pope Damasus in a letter
still famous, but which the pope did not answer. Discontented, Jerome returned
to Antioch, let himself be ordained presbyter by Paulinus, and became the echo
of Paulinist imputations against Meletius and his following. In 378 Dorotheus
and Sanctissimus returned from Rome, bearers of a formal condemnation of the
errors pointed out by the Orientals; this decree definitively united the two
halves of the Christian world. It seemed as though St. Basil was but waiting for
this object of all his efforts, for he died 1 Jan., 379. The cause he had served
so well seemed won, and Emperor Valens's death five months earlier warranted a
hopeful outlook. 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
Palaia or 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 150 bishops in order to
assure the triumph of orthodoxy in the East, and published a profession of faith
which was to meet the approval of the Council of Constantinople (382). 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 the absence of the Bishop of Alexandria, the presidency rightfully fell to the Bishop of Antioch, whom the Emperor Theodosius received with marked deference, nor was the imperial favour 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 peaced. 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. 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.
ALLARD, Julien l'Apostat (Paris, 1903); HEFELE, Histoire des conciles, ed. LECLERCQ, ii, 1; LOOFS in Realencyk. für prot. Theol. und Kirche, s. v.; CAVALLERA, Le schisme d'Antioche au IV et V siècle (Paris, 1905).
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