One of the dangers of being knowledgeable about Church history and the lives of the saints is that you can cherry-pick just about any action or words used by some saint at some time in history to justify your own actions.
Don’t feel like evangelizing? Just quote the apocryphal St. Francis quote, “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
Feel like smacking a co-worker that annoys you? Just remember that jolly ol’ St. Nick once hit the arch-heretic Arius.
In other words, take some event or quote out of context and (mis-)apply it to justify just about any action you take or any attitude you might have.
One of the most common historical phrases used by certain Catholics is “Athanasius contra mundum” or “Athanasius against the world”. This phrase is referring to the fact that St. Athanasius almost single-handedly held off the Arian heresy in the 4th century. When vast numbers of bishops capitulated to the Arians, Athanasius alone strongly defended Nicene orthodoxy, and in the end was successful (although after five exiles). St. Athanasius is a great example of perseverance and standing strong for the Faith even in the face of great adversity.
However, I have often seen this phrase used as the motto of those who do not want to put in the hard work necessary to be charitable to others and to change hearts and minds. For example, when a parish priest says something that doesn’t jibe with this person’s personal theology, he will attack the priest and accuse him of heresy. And when he is ostracized by the parish, he will take heart that he has joined the ranks of saints like St. Athanasius in defending the Faith in the face of persecution.
Well, no – he’s just been a jerk and treated accordingly.
We are required as Christians to treat everyone charitably and with the best possible intentions. St. Bernard said,
Even though you see something very bad about your neighbor, don’t jump immediately to conclusions, but rather make excuses for him interiorly. Excuse his intention, if you cannot excuse his action. Think that he may have acted out of ignorance, or by surprise, or accidentally. If the thing is so blatant that it cannot be denied, even so, believe it to be so, and say inwardly: the temptation must have been very strong. (Sermon on the Canticle of Canticles 40).
In other words, don’t go looking for errors and problems in others, but instead pray for them and assume the best. That does not mean that we do not resist heresy, it just means that we always do so charitably – and even reluctantly, in the sense that we hope and pray that the other person is simply being misunderstood or talking out of ignorance.
A more accurate way to describe the 4th century would be to say that it was “the world against Athanasius”. In other words, Athanasius did not go around looking for problems and people to offend. Instead he charitably and forcibly stood up for orthodoxy and then the world attacked him. We should do the same today. We don’t need to pursue persecution; simply living the Faith usually means that persecution will come to us.