Scripture tells us that we who make up the Body of Christ on earth are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” in heaven (Hebrews 12:1). These brothers and sisters of ours are the saints, and in the same way that they imitated Christ, they are held up as examples for us to imitate in turn. However, there is a select number of these men and women that are venerated in a very special way. Their witness and contribution to the Church’s mission of leading souls to Christ is so great, that they have all been given a distinctive title. We call these thirty-six saints the Doctors of the Church. This special title is given by the pope, and it recognizes that the saint has done an exemplary job in passing on the gospel not only to the people of their own specific times, but for all time.
Considering how many saints there are, and only thirty-six have been so recognized, it’s safe to say that these saints are kind of a big deal! If it can be said that the saints are our friends in heaven (and they are), then we should especially get to know the Doctors of the Church. Many of them are well known among Catholics, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Pope St. Gregory the Great, among others. But there are quite a few that you may not be familiar with, or may even be surprised to see on this list in the first place. Let’s take a look at five of these great saints that you may have never heard of, and by using their example, endeavor to grow closer to Christ.
1. St. Cyril of Alexandria
The first saint we’ll take a look at is one of the early Church Fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria. While his feast day is on the General Roman Calendar for June 27t, it is sadly only an optional memorial following the revision of the calendar in 1969, which has led to him not being as well known as other Doctors of the Church. He is actually one of two Doctors with the name Cyril, the other being St. Cyril of Jerusalem, whose feast is celebrated on March 18t. But St. Cyril of Alexandria is credited with leading the Church through the turbulent times of the fifth century, and is often called the “Doctor of the Incarnation”.
In the year 412, Cyril of Alexandria succeeded his uncle, Theophilus, as Patriarch of Alexandria. During his life, he worked tirelessly against the heresies of Novationism and Nestorianism. For his unflinching resolve in defending the truths of the Catholic Faith, St. Cyril has been praised throughout the centuries. His presence at the Council of Ephesus in 431 led to Nestorius’ deposition from his bishopric, and saw orthodox Christology reaffirmed. In short, Nestorius had claimed that there were two persons in Christ, a divine person and a human person. This stemmed from his belief that Mary could not be called the Theotokos, or Mother of God, but merely “the Mother of Christ”. St. Cyril would have none of this, and in concert with the other bishops at the Ecumenical Council, declared that Mary truly was the Mother of God:
“That anyone could doubt the right of the holy Virgin to be called the Mother of God fills me with astonishment. Surely she must be the Mother of God if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, and she gave birth to him! Our Lord’s disciples may not have used those exact words, but they delivered to us the belief those words enshrine, and this has also been taught us by the holy fathers.”
He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1883, and was even the subject of an encyclical, Orientalis Ecclesiae, promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1944. We should reflect upon Pius XII’s words on this great saint:
“All should take St. Cyril as their model in striving for a true harmony of souls, a harmony established by that triple bond which Christ Jesus, the Founder of the Church, willed to be the supernatural and unbreakable link provided by Him for binding and holding together: the bond of one faith, of one charity towards God and all men, and of one obedience and rightful submission to the hierarchy established by the Divine Redeemer Himself.”(OE 9)
2. St. Gregory of Narek
Here we have the newest of the Doctors of the Church, and perhaps one of the most enigmatic. Despite this, St. Gregory of Narek is most worthy of our veneration in this present age. In 2015, Pope Francis declared St. Gregory of Narek as the thirty-sixth Doctor of the Church. Many people were confused, though, when they found out that St. Gregory was Armenian, and apparently was not in direct communion with the pope in Rome. Fears that St. Gregory could not be venerated by Catholics, however, are unfounded. We must first peel back the layers of history just a bit to gain a better understanding of St. Gregory’s place.
Following the Council of Chalcedon, some Christians, including those in Armenia, broke from the Church after not recognizing the Christological definitions which were formulated there. For more on this, see this article on the Armenian Catholic Church. Over the years, many attempts at reunion were made, including in 1138 and 1439. These efforts at reunion did not see lasting effects, and were only observed in some places. It wasn’t until 1742 when full reunion was finally realized. Since St. Gregory lived during the tenth century, can it then be said that he should not be venerated since the Armenian Apostolic Church and Catholic Church were not in full communion? Of course not! There is no evidence that St. Gregory did not uphold Chalcedon, and his writings have been praised by Pope St. John Paul II, as well as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself.
It might surprise many to know that St. Gregory had been venerated in the Catholic Church long before Pope Francis’ declaration in 2015. Armenian Catholics have been venerating him for centuries, since at least 1742 as seen above. In addition, the Roman Martyrology has recognized St. Gregory’s feast since at least the 2005 edition, ten years before Pope Francis declared him a Doctor of the Church. Clearly, his wisdom is sorely needed by the world today, and we should certainly make his prayer of praise our own:
“You found me, a sinner, lost in darkness crying like the psalmist in prayer, and because of your willing care you were called Shepherd, for not only did you care, but you sought, not only did you find, O worker of miracles, but with the goodness of your love, a love that defies description, you rescued me, lifting me upon your shoulders, to set down alongside your heavenly army, the heirs to your fatherly legacy.”(Prayer 15)
3. St. Anthony of Padua
If you are Catholic, chances are you know who St. Anthony of Padua is. If you’ve ever lost anything, you’ve surely said a prayer asking for this saint’s intercession. As it turns out, many are unaware that St. Anthony is actually a Doctor of the Church, and for good reason, too. One of his nicknames, which is often forgotten due to his penchant for his help in finding lost things, was “Hammer of Heretics”. This is something we would think to attribute more to someone like St. Athanasius, but instead it is St. Anthony that possesses this title.
As it turns out, St. Anthony was a fantastic preacher, and pulled no punches when it came to speaking the truth. The following is from his sermon on hypocrites and false prophets for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
“Note that the hypocrite who hides under a sheep-skin is like the hyena, of which many strange things are told. The hyena is a small animal, living wild, digging up graves at night and eating the bodies of the dead… [The hypocrite] accuses himself of being a sinner, but does not think he is. He draws men with false gurglings and groanings, so that they think he is a saint, seeing him groan like this! Sometimes he even deceives just men, too ready to believe in his false devotion. If his shadow touches anyone, they are unable to bark against him- they even defend him! In particular, this happens today with those who trust heretics. They really do not heed the Lord’s advice: Beware of false prophets…”
These are wise words for our own day, and his wisdom is a main reason why he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII in 1946. So not only should the “Evangelical Doctor”, as he is also affectionately named, be called upon when finding your car keys, but also when needing words in dealing with those who have strayed from the Barque of Peter.
4. St. Peter Chrysologus
This Doctor of the Church also shares his name with two othersm and should not be confused with St. Peter Canisus or St. Peter Damien. Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIII in 1722, St. Peter Chrysologus is also counted among the Church Fathers. He came to be differentiated from other St. Peters due to the way that he preached. His nickname, Chrysologus, literally translates to “golden words”. This is the reason why he is also referred to as the “Doctor of Homilies”. Living in the fifth century, he received the title of Chrysologus after preaching in the presence of the Roman empress, Aelia Galla Placidia. This was during his first Mass as archbishop of Ravenna, and from that day forward, he was revered as one of the Church’s greatest orators.
According to legend, St. Peter Chrysologus’ appointment to the Archdiocese of Ravenna came about through the help of another St. Peter. Following the death of the previous archbishop in 433, a successor was chosen and a delegation, along with the deacon St. Peter Chrysologus, journeyed to Rome to receive Pope St. Sixtus III’s confirmation. However, the night before they arrived, St. Sixtus received a vision from St. Peter the Apostle and St. Apollinaris of Ravenna, signaling to the pope that heaven had chosen a different successor: St. Peter Chrysologus. After meeting some opposition, the delegation finally accepted the pope’s decision, and St. Peter Chrysologus was consecrated as bishop there in Rome. We celebrate St. Peter Chrysolugus’ feast day each year on July 30.
5. St. Lawrence of Brindisi
Arguably one of the more obscure of the Doctors of the Church, St. Lawrence of Brindisi was a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, and lived in the direct aftermath of Martin Luther’s revolution, becoming a central figure of the Catholic Reformation. Born in 1559 as Cesare de Rossi, St. Lawrence was educated by Franciscans (taking the name of Lawrence when he received the habit at age sixteen) and during his studies, became fluent in many different languages, making him one of the greatest linguists among the Doctors of the Church. As is noted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, his knowledge of many languages led to countless souls coming to Jesus Christ and the Sacraments:
“In 1596 he went to fill the office of definitor general of his order in Rome, and was charged by Pope Clement VIII to work for the conversion of the Jews. In this he had considerable success, his knowledge of Hebrew being a valuable adjunct to his learning and holy life. He was sent with Bl. Benedict of Urbino into Germany to establish the Capuchins there as a bulwark against Lutheranism; they began to work by nursing those sick of the plague, and before they had left they had founded friaries at Prague, Vienna and Gorizia … ”
Butler also observes that, during his time in Gorizia, reports surfaced that our Lord himself appeared to St. Lawrence and his companions in choir, feeding them all with the Blessed Sacrament by his own hand. On top of all this, St. Lawrence was a master exegete of Scripture and skilled mariologist. He worked tirelessly to carry out the reforms brought about by the Council of Trent. In his 1959 apostolic letter Celsitudo ex humilitate declaring St. Lawrence a Doctor of the Church, Pope St. John XXIII called him the “standard-bearer of the Roman church, [persuading] many to renounce and foreswear the opinions of false teaching.” He also experienced many spiritual consolations, often falling into ecstasy when he celebrated Holy Mass. He often preached about practicing virtue, and how with our Lord’s help, growing more virtuous is possible for any person in any state of life:
“‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am poor and humble in heart.’ The school of Christ is the school of the virtues, not of natural philosophy but of the moral and the divine. Vane and worldly wisdom is not acquired there, but heavenly and divine wisdom. Christ is the teacher and model of the virtues. In this school all the Saints learned perfect justice, holiness and the perfection of every virtue … ”
Sainthood is obtainable for all, and St. Lawrence greatly desired this for all people. The Church celebrates his feast day each year on July 21.
Reflect on Their Holiness
As we can see, we have many great friends among the saints, and many of the most powerful intercessors are among the Doctors of the Church. Now that we know a bit more about these great Doctors, we would do well to reflect on the holiness of their lives, and to read more of their writings. Their wisdom is great for all times and places, and if we wish to grow in holiness, we should follow the example and directives of these great saints, which will surely help us grow ever closer to our Lord Jesus.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.