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 Bercea 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 centers of Nicene orthodoxy. This great man was set aside and his first successors, Paulinus and Eulalius held the see but 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 Leontius (344-358). His sympathy for the Arian heresy was open, and his disciple Aetius 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. Aetius 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 favor in 360, and made Bishop of Constantinople, whereby the Antiochene episcopal succession was reopened. From all sides bishops assembled for the election. The Acacias 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 today, 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 favored 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 Nicene 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 text 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 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 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 his native Armenia. He had occupied his see less than a month.
This exile was the immediate cause 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 reestablish 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 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 expressed 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 those 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 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, Caesarea 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 hill 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. 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 Caesarea 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 disappointment. 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 Dodorus, 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 “status 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 error 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 January 1, 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 reestablish 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 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 reemphasizing 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. 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.