On this day: St. Hilary of Arles, Bishop

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Hilary of Arles. He was born about 403, and, at an early age, he joined Lérins, the monastery founded by his relative, St. Honoratus. Hilary succeeded Honoratus as abbot, and, in 429, as bishop of Arles.

Bishop Hilary's famous clash with Pope Leo the Great came in 445 after Hilary deposed Celedonius, bishop of Besançon, for marrying a widow and, before his ordination, for having presided over a trial that ended with capital punishment.

Celedonius appealed to Rome. Even though Pope Leo knew that a predecessor, Pope Zosimus, had granted primacy over Besançon to Arles, he quashed Hilary's ruling.

"Archbishop Hilary, a person of austere and uncourtly address, took up his staff, and in the midst of winter travelled on foot to Rome. Leo received him with good humour; but Hilary abruptly declared that he had not travelled so far, and in such weather, to bandy words with the pope, but simply to state the case of Celedonius as it really stood upon the facts proved, and to warn the pontiff against flying in the face of all ecclesiastical law."

Things went from bad to worse. Hilary "appears to have lost his temper, and to have committed some contempt of the pontiff and his court that consigned him to ecclesiastical custody." But Hilary escaped his jailers and went home to Arles. Leo cut him off from communion with Rome. There were more sanctions, including an edict from the emperor, Valentinian III.

--Cathedra Petri, by Thomas Greenwood, 1856.

St. Hilary was no match for St. Leo, who later would stand up to Atilla the Hun.

"When we come to the reign of Pope Leo I (440-61) we reach one of the momentous turning points in the history of the papacy. By common consent of historians, Leo was one of the greatest of ecclesiastical statesmen and deservedly surnamed 'the Great.' At a time when the world was cracking at the seams, Leo stood forth as a Pope of commanding character and genius who dramatically and successfully asserted the supreme authority of the papacy. . . . he formulated a doctrine of papal primacy that was to weather all storms and guide the policy of all subsequent Popes. According to Leo, Peter was 'the Rock' on which the Lord built his Church; his successors, the Popes, were merely his temporary mystical personifications. . . . Leo not only enunciated this grandiose theory of papal primacy, but also . . . made its claims good. . . . he frustrated the attempt to create an independent Gallic see in Arles--even going so far as to strip the saintly Hilary of his metropolitan authority there."

--A Concise History of the Catholic Church, by Thomas Bokenkotter, Image, 2005, pages 85-86.

St. Hilary died in 449.

To understand the social, economic, and political context in which the Hilary vs. Leo, Arles vs. Rome, Gaul vs. Italy battle took place, see Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity? edited by John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton, Cambridge University Press, 2002. In Chapter 21, "The 'affair' of Hilary of Arles (445) and Gallo-Roman identity in the fifth century", page 239, M. Heinzelmann, explains the importance of the Gallic aristocracy, from which both Honoratus and Hilary came, and of the new monastic foundations, where they and other future bishops prepared for power.

For Pope Leo, see The Soteriology of Leo the Great, by Bernard Green, Oxford University Press, 2008. The Introduction, with its description of the old house churches within the walls of Rome and the new basilicas outside the walls is fascinating; "most Christians were not expected to go to church every Sunday".

For a brief summary of the treatment of Bishop Hilary of Arles by Pope Leo the Great, see Leo the Great, by Bronwen Neil, Routledge, 2009.

Click here for some images of Arles. St. Hilary would recognize many of them.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters