It was the year 313, and the bishop of Alexandria stood at his window and looked out upon the city he was responsible for.
Beyond the line of houses, Bishop Alexander could see the city’s port bustling with the activity that had made Egypt such a rich trading centre during the height of the Roman Empire. Beyond that, stretching as far into the distance as the eye could see, the bishop looked upon the waters of the Mediterranean.
Just as Bishop Alexander was about to turn away from the window and prepare for some guests he was expecting for Sunday dinner, his gaze caught something he hadn’t seen before. On the shore of the harbor a group of boys were playing.
In itself this was nothing unusual; what was unusually is what the boys were playing. They seemed to be reenacting a baptism service. One of the boys was actually baptizing the other boys.
Concerned that the boys were making light of weighty matters, the Bishop sent his servant to break up the mock service and bring the boys to himself.
When the boys arrived at his house, the bishop began by asking the boys what they had been playing.
“It wasn’t our fault,” put in one of the company. “It was the bishop’s fault.” As he said this, the boy pointed towards a tall slim lad with ruddy hair, the one whom Alexander had seen baptizing the other boys.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is Athanasius,” the young boy replied, a little nervous to find the bishop taking such an interest in him. “We were just playing,” the boy continued. “I was pretending to be the bishop and these [pointing to his companions] are my catechumens who have been awaiting baptism.”
As Bishop Alexander continued to question the boy, his response turned from one of censure to wonder. It turned out that the child had performed the baptismal rites on his companions with remarkable accuracy, perfectly reciting in Greek the liturgical formula used in the baptism of catechumens.
“Are you a Christian?” Alexander asked.
Bishop Alexander continued his inquiries. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a priest.”
The bishop stood silent for a moment eying the boy. “It is not an easy life,” he said softly, recalling the Diocletian persecution which had only just come to an end and in which many of his friends had been martyred for the faith. “Also, a priest must have learning.”
“I love to learn,” said the boy, “And I am not afraid of anything!”
Impressed by the boy’s enthusiasm, the bishop made inquiries into the names and whereabouts of his parents. Later that week Alexander paid Athanasius’ parents a visit and asked for permission to bring the boy up in order to train and educate him for the ministry. Athanasius’ parents, who always knew there was something special about their boy, gladly accepted the bishop’s offer.
Athanasius quickly grew to love the gentle bishop as a father. But Athanasius was not the only one blessed by the relationship. The busy bishop found his generosity to the boy repaid a hundredfold, as the lad became a most useful assistant. Together the two of them travelled around the vast diocese, strengthening local church leaders and ministering to the needs of the saints.
Six years later, when Athanasius was 23 years old, he was ordained as a deacon and continued to work closely with the aging Patriarch.