The first recognized Doctor of the Church was Saint Athanasius, the great bishop who is regarded as the great apostle defending the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church against the suffocating heresy of Arianism. Born in Egypt around 297, he spent his youth studying the Scriptures and learning piety. The Bishop of Alexandria Bishop Alexander took note early of Athanasius' gifts and guided him through his studies for the priesthood. He was ordained a deacon at the age of 21.
A year after a priest from Antioch by the name of Arius began spreading the heresy that Christ was not truly the Son of God, not of one nature or substance with the Heavenly Father and therefore not worthy of the divinity bestowed on Him, not part of the Divine Trinity. This heresy was falsely based on combined teachings of Judaism, Sophism and Ecclecticism. Little did anyone realize at the time the great damage the Arian heresy would cause.
When the Council of Nicaea was called in 325, even though he was only still only a deacon, his Bishop chose Athanasius to accompany him as a periti. There he amazed and impressed the Council Fathers with his thorough knowledge of the Faith and his masterful apologetics approach of defending the Faith, especially against the Arian heresy. Though Arianism was soundly condemned at Nicaea, it did not go away. Rather it spread further and, were it not for men like Athanasius, who knows what further damage might have been done. It was Athanasius himself who illustrated the great damage done when he said, "The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." He was, of course, referring to those bishops - the vast majority - who had been lured away from the True Church in following the false teachings of Arius. If that many bishops were in hell, how many who followed them down the wide path to perdition also were? They say for every priest who loses his soul, 1000 souls are lost; for every bishop who loses his eternal soul, 10,000 souls are denied the Heavenly portals.
St. Athanasius left such an impression that only a few months after the Council concluded he was consecrated a Bishop, becoming at only the age of 33 the Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. It was there that he would begin his four-decade long battle with the Arians amid great persecution and testing of his Faith. Yet that Faith even at an early age was so strong that he wrote the dogmatic works Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione Verbi Dei while still a deacon. They were a response to Gentiles and Jews on defending Christ's divinity and His Incarnation. While still a deacon he also defended his Bishop against the growing campaign against orthodox prelates by Arius and his fast-increasing followers. Ever loyal, Athanasius rallied to defend his shepherd Bishop Alexander against the Arians with his Apologia which was later compiled with other works in what was called "Defense Against the Arians."
When he succeeded his bishop he was immediately the main target of the Arians, both because of his now important position and also because he had fought so furiously and piously against the mounting wave of Arian hierarchy. Arius, clever as a snake, enticed a like-minded devious character in Eusebius of Nicomedia who had been mistakenly allowed back into the Church after exile, to convince the Emperor Constantine to ask Athanaius to reinstate Arius and his men back into the Church in good standing. When Athanasius refused unless Arius recanted his heresies, the Emperor and Arians put pressure on Athanasius. While many might say where was the Pope - Pope Saint Sylvester I who, though a holy man, had little power for the emperor still held sway, especially Constantine. When push came to shove St. Athanasius decided on intense prayer and fasting that God would not let the gates of hell prevail and the sacrilege not be carried out by Arius. Constantine, also, was duped and thinking Eusebius and Arius would amend their ways - even though they had not made such a statement, he ordered Athanasius to do so. When the latter refused, Eusebius mounted a slur campaign against the saint, stirring up the Meletians in an effort to discredit Athanasius. They even accused the saint of murdering the Meletian bishop Arsenius, who, in truth was not dead, but hiding from authorities.
The Meletians managed to issue a summons to force Athanasius before a Council at Tyre in 335. The deck was heavily stacked with Arian bishops. Though Constantine believed Athanasius, he still exiled him to Germany, so fearful was the temporal emperor of the Arian power. Two years later Constantine died and his son Constantine II decided to recall Athanasius but no sooner had he done so then Eusebius once again launched charges that caused the son to cower and depose Athanasius once again, this time at a Synod in Antioch, the seat of the Arian heresy. An Arian bishop was placed in Alexandria in place of Athanasius and they even sent a letter to Pope Julius I asking him to affirm the Synod's actions. The Orthodox contingent of bishops in Egypt in full support of Athanasius, filed a protest to Pope Julius while riots and violent protests were breaking out against the new Arian Patriarch of Alexandria.
With the matter now placed before the Pope, Athanasius went obediently to Rome, feeling he would get a fair hearing. That he did and was totally vindicated at the Council of Serdica in 344, which dealt also on the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff. Indeed, two years prior Pope Saint Julius I wrote in an epistle to the Antiochenes, as recorded in Denziger's Enchiridion Symbolorum, "The Sources of Catholic Dogma,"
"For if, indeed, as you assert, some sin has risen among them, a judicial investigation ought to have been made according to the ecclesiastical canon, and not in this manner [referring to the slur campaign against Athanasius]. Everyone should have written to us, in order tthat thus what was just might be decided by all; for the bihsops were the ones who suffered, and it was not the ordinary churches that were harassed, but which the apostles themselves governed in person. Yet why has nothing been written to us, especially regarding the Alexandrian church? Or do you not know that it is the custom to write to us first, and that here what is just is decided? Certainly if any suspicion of this nature did fall upon the bishop of that city, the fact should have been written to this church."
Because at that time the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff was not as strong as it would be in future years, the Pope was not the first to whom the people or hierarchy turned to, especially the Arians who sought to fashion their own cult despite the fact it differed from what the Church had taught for over three centuries. When none of his accusers showed up for the Synod, St. Julius absolved Athanasius of any wrong-doing at the Council. It was during this time also that Athanasius built a resistance to Arianism with various bishops of the Western Church, since he could be considered of the Eastern Church in Alexandria. He had to stay in Rome because the man who had usurped his See Gregory had too much influence and, despite the rebellion by orthodox faithful, it was not enough to unseat the powerful Arian usurper. The Roman Emperor who followed Constantine II, Constansius, an Arian sympathizer himself, to appease his brother Constans who was not of like mind as his brother the emperor, reluctantly allowed Athanasius to return to his See, but soon after Constans' death by assassination in 350 at the hands of the Arian sympathizers, his brother, growing in power as emperor of both East and West, rescinded his decree and ordered Athanasius deposed again in the emperor's attempts to exterminate all orthodoxy.
He called a Council at Arles in 353, but Athanasius fearing again an overwhelming Arian presence and a kangaroo court, ignored the edicts to attend a Council in which the saint was condemned as anathema, which Pope Liberius had objected to. Constantius called another in Milan in 355, and exiled Pope Liberius to Thrace replacing him with the Arian antipope Felix II. Unbeknownst to Athanasius, Liberius had been weakened in his resolve and in a moment of weakness signed an ambiguous document which omitted key components of the Nicene Creed and thus indicted Athanasius by covering up true Church teaching that had been so clouded by the Arians. With this ammunition of a Pope's signature in the Arians' hands, Athanasius was yet again condemned and forced into exile while another Arian was placed in his See George of Cappodocia. So great was the hatred and calumny against Athanasius that he constantly lived in fear for his life. The Arians knew how he had rallied a corp of western bishops to traditional values in upholding the Truths and Traditions without compromise and they recognized Athanasius was the greatest threat to them. And rightly so that Athanasius has been called the "Father of Orthodoxy" or the "Apostle of Tradition."
So great was the saint's determination to uphold all Holy Mother Church taught that he actually converted many Arian back to the True Church. This only infuriated the Arian bishops more, for they had grown to universal proportions, denying the few orthodox prelates left to conduct Masses and the Sacraments in underground churches much as is the case today during the great Modernist heresy where so many in the post-conciliar church have bought into the heresies of ecumenism, humanism and religious liberty, causing great damage to the True Faith. No wonder Athanasius is the Patron Saint of Traditional Roman Catholics. Despite being exiled by Liberius - a saint, St. Athanasius realized not to ordain bishops would allow the True Faith to wain and possibly die out - so great was the Arian heresy. Thus, without permission of the Pope he, like Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ordained bishops and priests to perpetuate the true Faith. Both Athanasius in the 5th century and Lefebvre in the 20th century did so because the Faith was in peril. Always that takes precedence over ecclesiastical protocol.
Like the intimidation of Traditional Roman Catholics today, Athanasius' followers were greatly maligned and threatened. It came to blows one evening when Arian soldiers broke into Athanasius' church and killed many of his parishioners. True Martyrs. He was forced to flee to the upper deserts of Egypt to escape the Arian's bounty-hunters. Just as Lefebvre was forced into exile in Econe by Modernists, so Athanasius was also by the Arians. Yet, like the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X did, Athanasius used this time to write and preach, doing the great majority of his writing while in exile including his Apologia to Constantius, History of the Arians, Defense of Flight and his Letter to the Monks.
In 361 Constantius died and soon after George of Cappodocia was assassinated in Alexandria. Though he was succeeded by another Arian Piustus, when Constantius' successor Julian the Apostate became emperor he rescinded all orders of his predecessors, thus nullifying the exile of Athanasius. With that the saint was reinstated as Patriarch of Alexandria. Here Athanasius convened a Synod from which it is believed the Creed attributed to him Quicunque vult, called the "Athanasian Creed," originated. Many believe it was not written by him per se, but from his influence by one or more of the orthodox western bishops in attendance and released after his death. Athanasius time as Patriarch in Alexandria was far too short yet again for Athanasius, true to his principles and Faith could not remain silent when Julian announced plans to paganize the entire Roman empire in his attempts to restore ancient Rome. Julian was outraged at Athanasius' rejection and sent troops to kill him. The saint once again fled the city for the desert where he remained until Julian was assassinated in 363.
The new emperor Jovian restored Athanasius to his See in Alexandria but that was also very short-lived - a less than eight-month span - for Jovian passed quickly and his successor Valens decided in 365 to banish all orthodox bishops. However the outrage was so great that Valens revoked his earlier edict four months after issuing it and Athanasius was allowed to return for a final time to his beloved Alexandria where he died eight years later on May 2, 373. During those final years he was able to plant the seeds for the new Nicene Party, a resistance to the heretics that would be triumphant for Orthodoxy and the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 in which Arianism was solidly condemned.
During the dark times of the Church God always raises up strong saints and Athanasius was one of the strongest, bearing up under tremendous assault by his detractors and enemies. He is credited with greatly advancing the ascetic movement in Egypt, having also written the biography of Saint Antony of Egypt - Life of Antony. Athanasius is considered one of the greatest saints in the Eastern Church even though the Western Church also considers him one of the greatest. The seeds he helped plant at the Council of Nicaea must not be allowed to go dormant in these times which not only parallel the Arian heresy, but in many ways, is far worse in numbers and deceit. Indeed, Pope Saint Pius X referred often to St. Athanasius, calling on all to "Let what was confessed by the Fathers of Nicaea prevail." Let Tradition prevail, let Tradition live. As Athanasius proved, perseverence and adherence to the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church will always win out no matter the trials and tribulations.
Butler's Lives of the Saints records,
"In the year 373 his stormy life closed in peace, rather that his people would have it so than that his enemies were weary of persecuting him. He left to the Church the whole and ancient Faith, defended and explained in writings rich in thought and learning, clear, keen, and stately in expression."
That is praise you could also attribute to Archbishop Lefebvre and his enemies who have become weary of persecuting Traditionalists, yet they press on just as the Roman emperors and Eusebius did. But God will win out. Athanasius' feast day is May 2 in the universal Church, celebrated to commemorate the day he died in 373 at the age of 76. From his works was fashioned the Athanasian Creed and his followers came to be known as "Athanasians" - though in truth they were merely orthodox Roman Catholics loyal to the Truths and Traditions of the Sacred Deposit of the Faith of Holy Mother Church, not unlike those who are called "Traditionalists" or even "Lefebvrists" today. For them they can take great heart from the great Saint Athanasius as Patron of the cause of Truth and Tradition in this time of war against the heresies of Humanism, Ecumenism, and Modernism.
Note: [editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis]