Tuesday, October 17, 2017

St. Gregory the Great: "Life of the Pastor"

St. Gregory the Great,
by Bicci di Lorenzo.
OFTEN, however, a spiritual director swells with pride by virtue of being placed in a position of authority over others. Because everything serves his needs and his orders are quickly performed according to his wishes and all of the laity praise him for the things he does well but have no authority to critique what goes wrong, and because they often praise what should really be rebuked, the mind of the priest is often seduced by the approval of those below him, and as a consequence he is exalted inordinately. And while he is outwardly encircled with immense favor, internally he loses his sense of truth. Forgetful of who he is, he scatters himself among the voices of others and believes what he hears them say about him rather than what he should discern about himself from within. [Such a leader] despises the laity and does not believe that they are his equal by nature. And those whom he surpassed by the accident of power, he believes himself to have transcended by the merits of his life. He estimates that he is wiser than those whom he sees himself to have surpassed in rank. Indeed, he constructs his own elated sense of self, and though he shares the same natural conditions as others, he disdains to regard others as his equal. Instead, he brings himself into equality with the one of whom it is written in Scripture: “He sees every high and is king over all the sons of pride.” [Job 41.25] the one who desired a singular height and despised a life in common with the angels said: “I will place my seat in the north and I will be like the Most High.” [Isa 14.13-14] Through a fitting judgment, this one came upon an internal downfall while he outwardly exalted himself on the height of power. In like manner, whenever someone disdains to be like other humans, it is as if he became an apostate angel.

Such was the case of Saul, who after cultivating the merit of humility, later became swollen with pride because of his temporal authority. For his humility he was preferred, for his pride he was rejected, as the Lord attests, saying: “When you were little in your own sight, did I not make you the head of the tribes of Israel?” [1 Sam 15.17] He had previously seen himself to be of little consequence, but after he received temporal authority, he began to think of himself as greater than everyone else. In a wonderful way, when he was small to himself, he was great to the Lord; but when he thought of himself as great, he became small to the Lord. For often when a soul is inflated because of the authority it holds over the laity, it becomes corrupted and moved to pride by the allure of power. In truth, one controls this power well if he knows how both to temper and to assert it. For he controls this power well if he knows how to use to gain a mastery over sin and also knows how to mingle with others as equals. For the human mind is subject to pride even when it is not propped up by a position of authority. How much more, then, does it exalt itself when it is combined with temporal power? But he dispenses his power over the laity rightly if he is careful to take what is useful and reject what is tempting and also if he uses it to realize his equality with others and put himself before sinners with an avenging zeal.

~St. Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604)

Excerpted from The Book of Pastoral Rule: St. Gregory the Great (Popular Patristics Series), Part II.

“It is worth noting that Gregory was the only Latin author of the patristic era whose works were translated into Greek during his own lifetime. Most notably, after reading the Book of Pastoral Rule, the Byzantine emperor Maurice ordered the book to be translated and disseminated to every bishop in his empire.” (From the Introduction)


Friday, October 13, 2017

St. Isidore: On Heresy

“THEREFORE, heresy is so called from the Greek word meaning ‘choice,’ by which each chooses according to his own will what he pleases to teach or believe. But we are not permitted to believe whatever we choose, nor to choose whatever someone else has believed. We have the apostles of God as authorities, who did not themselves of their own will choose what they would believe, but faithfully transmitted to the nations the teaching received from Christ. So, even if an angel from heaven should preach otherwise, he shall be called anathema.”

~St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636): Etymologies, 8, 3.

Statue of Isidore of Seville by José Alcoverro, 1892,
outside the Biblioteca Nacional de España, in Madrid.
(Photo credit: Luis García)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

St. Leo the Great: For the Feast of S. Laurence, Martyr

Sermon 85

On the Feast of S. Laurence the Martyr (Aug. 10).


I. The example of the martyrs is most valuable

Whilst the height of all virtues, dearly-beloved, and the fullness of all righteousness is born of that love, wherewith God and one's neighbour is loved, surely in none is this love found more conspicuous and brighter than in the blessed martyrs; who are as near to our Lord Jesus, Who died for all men, in the imitation of His love, as in the likeness of their suffering. For, although that Love, wherewith the Lord has redeemed us, cannot be equalled by any man's kindness, because it is one thing that a man who is doomed to die one day should die for a righteous man, and another that One Who is free from the debt of sin should lay down His life for the wicked (Rm 5:7-8): yet the martyrs also have done great service to all men, in that the Lord Who gave them boldness, has used it to show that the penalty of death and the pain of the cross need not be terrible to any of His followers, but might be imitated by many of them. If therefore no good man is good for himself alone, and no wise man's wisdom befriends himself only, and the nature of true virtue is such that it leads many away from the dark error on which its light is shed, no model is more useful in teaching God's people than that of the martyrs. Eloquence may make intercession easy, reasoning may effectually persuade; but yet examples are stronger than words, and there is more teaching in practice than in precept.

II. The Saint's martyrdom described

And how gloriously strong in this most excellent manner of doctrine the blessed martyr Laurentius is, by whose sufferings today is marked, even his persecutors were able to feel, when they found that his wondrous courage, born principally of love for Christ, not only did not yield itself, but also strengthened others by the example of his endurance. For when the fury of the gentile potentates was raging against Christ's most chosen members, and attacked those especially who were of priestly rank, the wicked persecutor's wrath was vented on Laurentius the deacon, who was pre-eminent not only in the performance of the sacred rites, but also in the management of the church's property , promising himself double spoil from one man's capture: for if he forced him to surrender the sacred treasures, he would also drive him out of the pale of true religion. And so this man, so greedy of money and such a foe to the truth, arms himself with double weapon: with avarice to plunder the gold; with impiety to carry off Christ. He demands of the guileless guardian of the sanctuary that the church wealth on which his greedy mind was set should be brought to him. But the holy deacon showed him where he had them stored, by pointing to the many troops of poor saints, in the feeding and clothing of whom he had a store of riches which he could not lose, and which were the more entirely safe that the money had been spent on so holy a cause.

III. The description of his sufferings continued

The baffled plunderer, therefore, frets, and blazing out into hatred of a religion, which had put riches to such a use, determines to pillage a still greater treasure by carrying off that sacred deposit , wherewith he was enriched, as he could find no solid hoard of money in his possession. He orders Laurentius to renounce Christ, and prepares to ply the deacon's stout courage with frightful tortures: and, when the first elicit nothing, fiercer follow. His limbs, torn and mangled by many cutting blows, are commanded to be broiled upon the fire in an iron framework , which was of itself already hot enough to burn him, and on which his limbs were turned from time to time, to make the torment fiercer, and the death more lingering.

IV. Laurentius has conquered his persecutor

You gain nothing, you prevail nothing, O savage cruelty. His mortal frame is released from your devices, and, when Laurentius departs to heaven, you are vanquished. The flame of Christ's love could not be overcome by your flames, and the fire which burnt outside was less keen than that which blazed within. You but served the martyr in your rage, O persecutor: you but swelled the reward in adding to the pain. For what did your cunning devise, which did not redound to the conqueror's glory, when even the instruments of torture were counted as part of the triumph? Let us rejoice, then, dearly-beloved, with spiritual joy, and make our boast over the happy end of this illustrious man in the Lord, "Who is wonderful in His saints," in whom He has given us a support and an example, and has so spread abroad his glory throughout the world, that, from the rising of the sun to its going down, the brightness of his deacon's light does shine, and Rome has become as famous in Laurentius as Jerusalem was ennobled by Stephen. By his prayer and intercession we trust at all times to be assisted; that, because all, as the Apostle says, "who wish to live holily in Christ, suffer persecution (2 Tim 3:12)," we may be strengthened with the spirit of love, and be fortified to overcome all temptations by the perseverance of steadfast faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.
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Source. Translated by Charles Lett Feltoe. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.)

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, by Fra Angelico.
Fresco, 1147-49; Cappella Niccolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

St. John Chrysostom: Homily 4 on Romans

Romans I. 26, 27
Byzantine mosaic of John Chrysostom
from the Hagia Sophia


"For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one towards another."

All these affections then were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonored, than the body in diseases. But behold how here too, as in the case of the doctrines, he deprives them of excuse, by saying of the women, that "they changed the natural use." For no one, he means, can say that it was by being hindered of legitimate intercourse that they came to this pass, or that it was from having no means to fulfil their desire that they were driven into this monstrous insaneness. For the changing implies possession. Which also when discoursing upon the doctrines he said, "They changed the truth of God for a lie." And with regard to the men again, he shows the same thing by saying, "Leaving the natural use of the woman." And in a like way with those, these he also puts out of all means of defending themselves by charging them not only that they had the means of gratification, and left that which they had, and went after another, but that having dishonored that which was natural, they ran after that which was contrary to nature. But that which is contrary to nature has in it an irksomeness and displeasingness, so that they could not fairly allege even pleasure. For genuine pleasure is that which is according to nature. But when God has left one, then all things are turned upside down. And thus not only was their doctrine Satanical, but their life too was diabolical. Now when he was discoursing of their doctrines, he put before them the world and man's understanding, telling them that, by the judgment afforded them by God, they might through the things which are seen, have been led as by the hand to the Creator, and then, by not willing to do so, they remained inexcusable. Here in the place of the world he sets the pleasure according to nature, which they would have enjoyed with more sense of security and greater glad-heartedness, and so have been far removed from shameful deeds. But they would not; whence they are quite out of the pale of pardon, and have done an insult to nature itself. And a yet more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more sense of shame than men. And here too the judgment of Paul is worthy of admiration, how having fallen upon two opposite matters he accomplishes them both with all exactness. For he wished both to speak chastely and to sting the hearer. Now both these things were not in his power to do, but one hindered the other. For if you speak chastely you shall not be able to bear hard upon the hearer. But if you are minded to touch him to the quick, you are forced to lay the naked facts before him in plain terms. But his discreet and holy soul was able to do both with exactness, and by naming nature has at once given additional force to his accusation, and also used this as a sort of veil, to keep the chasteness of his description. And next, having reproached the women first, he goes on to the men also, and says, "And likewise also the men leaving the natural use of the woman." Which is an evident proof of the last degree of corruptness, when both sexes are abandoned, and both he that was ordained to be the instructor of the woman, and she who was bid to become an helpmate to the man, work the deeds of enemies against one another. And reflect too how significantly he uses his words. For he does not say that they were enamoured of, and lusted after one another, but, "they burned in their lust one toward another." You see that the whole of desire comes of an exorbitancy which endures not to abide within its proper limits. For everything which transgresses the laws by God appointed, lusts after monstrous things and not those which be customary. For as many oftentimes having left the desire of food get to feed upon earth and small stones, and others being possessed by excessive thirst often long even for mire, thus these also ran into this ebullition of lawless love. But if you say, and whence came this intensity of lust? It was from the desertion of God: and whence is the desertion of God? From the lawlessness of them that left Him; "men with men working that which is unseemly." Do not, he means, because you have heard that they burned, suppose that the evil was only in desire. For the greater part of it came of their luxuriousness, which also kindled into flame their lust. And this is why he did not say being swept along or being overtaken, an expression he uses elsewhere; but what? Working. They made a business of the sin, and not only a business, but even one zealously followed up. And he called it not lust, but that which is unseemly, and that properly. For they both dishonored nature, and trampled on the laws. And see the great confusion which fell out on both sides. For not only was the head turned downwards but the feet too were upwards, and they became enemies to themselves and to one another, bringing in a pernicious kind of strife, and one even more lawless than any civil war, and one rife in divisions, and of varied form. For they divided this into four new, and lawless kinds. Since (3 manuscripts "whence") this war was not twofold or threefold, but even fourfold. Consider then. It was meet, that the two should be one, I mean the woman and the man. For "the two," it says, "shall be one flesh." (Gen 2:24) But this the desire of intercourse effected, and united the sexes to one another. This desire the devil having taken away, and having turned the course thereof into another fashion, he thus sundered the sexes from one another, and made the one to become two parts in opposition to the law of God. For it says, "the two shall be one flesh;" but he divided the one flesh into two: here then is one war. Again, these same two parts he provoked to war both against themselves and against one another. For even women again abused women, and not men only. And the men stood against one another, and against the female sex, as happens in a battle by night. You see a second and third war, and a fourth and fifth; there is also another, for beside what have been mentioned they also behaved lawlessly against nature itself. For when the Devil saw that this desire it is, principally, which draws the sexes together, he was bent on cutting through the tie, so as to destroy the race, not only by their not copulating lawfully, but also by their being stirred up to war, and in sedition against one another.

"And receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet." See how he goes again to the fountain head of the evil, namely, the impiety that comes of their doctrines, and this he says is a reward of that lawlessness. For since in speaking of hell and punishment, it seemed he would not at present be credible to the ungodly and deliberate choosers of such a life, but even scorned, he shows that the punishment was in this pleasure itself. (So Plato Theæt. p. 176, 7.) But if they perceive it not, but are still pleased, be not amazed. For even they that are mad, and are afflicted with phrenzy (cf. Soph. Aj. 265-277) while doing themselves much injury and making themselves such objects of compassion, that others weep over them themselves smile and revel over what has happened. Yet we do not only for this not say that they are quit of punishment, but for this very reason are under a more grievous vengeance, in that they are unconscious of the plight they are in. For it is not the disordered but those who are sound whose votes one has to gain. Yet of old the matter seemed even to be a law, and a certain law-giver among them bade the domestic slaves neither to use ointments when dry (i.e. except in bathing) nor to keep youths, giving the free this place of honor, or rather of shamefulness. Yet they, however, did not think the thing shameful, but as being a grand privilege, and one too great for slaves, the Athenian people, the wisest of people, and Solon who is so great among them, permitted it to the free alone. And sundry other books of the philosophers may one see full of this disease. But we do not therefore say that the thing was made lawful, but that they who received this law were pitiable, and objects for many tears. For these are treated in the same way as women that play the whore. Or rather their plight is more miserable. For in the case of the one the intercourse, even if lawless, is yet according to nature: but this is contrary both to law and nature. For even if there were no hell, and no punishment had been threatened, this were worse than any punishment. Yet if you say "they found pleasure in it," you tell me what adds to the vengeance. For suppose I were to see a person running naked, with his body all besmeared with mire, and yet not covering himself, but exulting in it, I should not rejoice with him, but should rather bewail that he did not even perceive that he was doing shamefully. But that I may show the atrocity in a yet clearer light, bear with me in one more example. Now if any one condemned a virgin to live in close dens (θαλομευομένην), and to have intercourse with unreasoning brutes, and then she was pleased with such intercourse, would she not for this be especially a worthy object of tears, as being unable to be freed from this misery owing to her not even perceiving the misery? It is plain surely to every one. But if that were a grievous thing, neither is this less so than that. For to be insulted by one's own kinsmen is more piteous than to be so by strangers: these I say (5 manuscripts "I consider") are even worse than murderers: since to die even is better than to live under such insolency. For the murderer dissevers the soul from the body, but this man ruins the soul with the body. And name what sin you will, none will you mention equal to this lawlessness. And if they that suffer such things perceived them, they would accept ten thousand deaths so they might not suffer this evil. For there is not, there surely is not, a more grievous evil than this insolent dealing. For if when discoursing about fornication Paul said, that "Every sin which a man does is without the body, but he that commits fornication sins against his own body" (1 Cor 6:18); what shall we say of this madness, which is so much worse than fornication as cannot even be expressed? For I should not only say that you have become a woman, but that you have lost your manhood, and hast neither changed into that nature nor kept that which you had, but you have been a traitor to both of them at once, and deserving both of men and women to be driven out and stoned, as having wronged either sex. And that you may learn what the real force of this is, if any one were to come and assure you that he would make you a dog instead of being a man, would you not flee from him as a plague? But, lo! You have not made yourself a dog out of a man, but an animal more disgraceful than this. For this is useful unto service, but he that has thus given himself up is serviceable for nothing. Or again, if any one threatened to make men travail and be brought to bed, should we not be filled with indignation? But lo! now they that have run into this fury have done more grievously by themselves. For it is not the same thing to change into the nature of women, as to continue a man and yet to have become a woman; or rather neither this nor that. But if you would know the enormity of the evil from other grounds, ask on what account the lawgivers punish them that make men eunuchs, and you will see that it is absolutely for no other reason than because they mutilate nature. And yet the injustice they do is nothing to this. For there have been those that were mutilated and were in many cases useful after their mutilation. But nothing can there be more worthless than a man who has pandered himself. For not the soul only, but the body also of one who has been so treated, is disgraced, and deserves to be driven out everywhere. How many hells shall be enough for such? But if you scoff at hearing of hell and believest not that fire, remember Sodom. For we have seen, surely we have seen, even in this present life, a semblance of hell. For since many would utterly disbelieve the things to come after the resurrection, hearing now of an unquenchable fire, God brings them to a right mind by things present. For such is the burning of Sodom, and that conflagration! And they know it well that have been at the place, and have seen with their eyes that scourge divinely sent, and the effect of the lightnings from above. (Jude 7) Consider how great is that sin, to have forced hell to appear even before its time! For whereas many thought scorn of His words, by His deeds did God show them the image thereof in a certain novel way. For that rain was unwonted, for that the intercourse was contrary to nature, and it deluged the land, since lust had done so with their souls. Wherefore also the rain was the opposite of the customary rain. Now not only did it fail to stir up the womb of the earth to the production of fruits, but made it even useless for the reception of seed. For such was also the intercourse of the men, making a body of this sort more worthless than the very land of Sodom. And what is there more detestable than a man who has pandered himself, or what more execrable? Oh, what madness! Oh, what distraction! Whence came this lust lewdly revelling and making man's nature all that enemies could? Or even worse than that, by as much as the soul is better than the body. Oh, you that were more senseless than irrational creatures, and more shameless than dogs! For in no case does such intercourse take place with them, but nature acknowledges her own limits. But you have even made our race dishonored below things irrational, by such indignities inflicted upon and by each other. Whence then were these evils born? Of luxury; of not knowing God. For so soon as any have cast out the fear of Him, all that is good straightway goes to ruin.

Now, that this may not happen, let us keep clear before our eyes the fear of God. For nothing, surely nothing, so ruins a man as to slip from this anchor, as nothing saves so much as continually looking thereto. For if by having a man before our eyes we feel more backward at doing sins, and often even through feeling abashed at servants of a better stamp we keep from doing anything amiss, consider what safety we shall enjoy by having God before our eyes! For in no case will the Devil attack us when so conditioned, in that he would be laboring without profit. But should he see us wandering abroad, and going about without a bridle, by getting a beginning in ourselves he will be able to drive us off afterwards any whither. And as it happens with thoughtless servants at market, who leave the needful services which their masters have entrusted to them, and rivet themselves at a mere haphazard to those who fall in their way, and waste out their leisure there; this also we undergo when we depart from the commandments of God. For we presently get standing on, admiring riches, and beauty of person, and the other things which we have no business with, just as those servants attend to the beggars that do jugglers' feats, and then, arriving too late, have to be grievously beaten at home. And many pass the road set before them through following others, who are behaving in the same unseemly way. But let not us so do. For we have been sent to dispatch many affairs that are urgent. And if we leave those, and stand gaping at these useless things, all our time will be wasted in vain and to no profit, and we shall suffer the extreme of punishment. For if you wish yourself to be busy, you have whereat you ought to wonder, and to gape all your days, things which are no subject for laughter, but for wondering and manifold praises. As he that admires things ridiculous, will himself often be such, and even worse than he that occasions the laughter. And that you may not fall into this, spring away from it immediately. For why is it, pray, that you stand gaping and fluttering at sight of riches? What do you see so wonderful, and able to fix your eyes upon them? These gold-harnessed horses, these lackeys, partly savages, and partly eunuchs, and costly raiment, and the soul that is getting utterly soft in all this, and the haughty brow, and the bustlings, and the noise? And wherein do these things deserve wonder? What are they better than the beggars that dance and pipe in the market-place? For these too being taken with a sore famine of virtue, dance a dance more ridiculous than theirs, led and carried round at one time to costly tables, at another to the lodging of prostitute women, and at another to a swarm of flatterers and a host of hangers-on. But if they do wear gold, this is why they are the most pitiable, because the things which are nothing to them, are most the subject of their eager desire. Do not now, I pray, look at their raiment, but open their soul, and consider if it is not full of countless wounds, and clad with rags, and destitute, and defenceless! What then is the use of this madness of shows? For it were much better to be poor and living in virtue, than to be a king with wickedness; since the poor man in himself enjoys all the delights of the soul, and does not even perceive his outward poverty for his inward riches. But the king, luxurious in those things which do not at all belong to him, is punished in those things which are his most real concern, even the soul, the thoughts, and the conscience, which are to go away with him to the other world. Since then we know these things, let us lay aside the gilded raiment, let us take up virtue and the pleasure which comes thereof. For so, both here and hereafter, shall we come to enjoy great delights, through the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom, and with Whom, be glory to the Father, with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
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Source. Translated by J. Walker, J. Sheppard and H. Browne, and revised by George B. Stevens. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 11. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889.)

Friday, June 30, 2017

St. Augustine: Martyrs, "the reason why we pay such honors to their memory"

"We do not build temples, and ordain priests, rites, and sacrifices for these same martyrs; for they are not our gods, but their God is our God. Certainly we honor their reliquaries, as the memorials of holy men of God who strove for the truth even to the death of their bodies, that the true religion might be made known, and false and fictitious religions exposed. For if there were some before them who thought that these religions were really false and fictitious, they were afraid to give expression to their convictions. But who ever heard a priest of the faithful, standing at an altar built for the honor and worship of God over the holy body of some martyr, say in the prayers, I offer to you a sacrifice, O Peter, or O Paul, or O Cyprian? For it is to God that sacrifices are offered at their tombs—the God who made them both men and martyrs, and associated them with holy angels in celestial honor; and the reason why we pay such honors to their memory is, that by so doing we may both give thanks to the true God for their victories, and, by recalling them afresh to remembrance, may stir ourselves up to imitate them by seeking to obtain like crowns and palms, calling to our help that same God on whom they called."

~St. Augustine: The City of God, Book 8, Chap. 27.


 

St. John Chrysostom: On Sts. Peter and Paul

“NOT so bright is the heaven, when the sun sends forth his rays, as is the city of Rome, sending out these two lights into all parts of the world. From thence will Paul be caught up, from thence Peter. Just bethink you, and shudder at the thought of what a sight Rome will see, when Paul arises suddenly from that deposit, together with Peter, and is lifted up to meet the Lord.  What a rose will Rome send up to Christ! What two crowns will the city have about it! What golden chains will she be girded with! What fountains possess! Therefore I admire the city, not for the much gold, not for the columns, not for the other display there, but for these pillars of the Church.”

~St. John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407): Homilies on Romans, 32.


Apostles Peter and Paul, by El Greco. Oil on canvas, c. 1592; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Saint Irenaeus, Doctor of the Church

Feast: June 28

The writings of Irenaeus give him an honored place among the Fathers of the Church for they laid the foundations of Christian theology and, by refuting the errors of the Gnostics,[1] kept the youthful Catholic faith from the danger of corruption by the subtle, pessimistic doctrines of these philosophers. Irenaeus was born, probably about the year 125, in one of the maritime provinces of Asia Minor, where the memory of the Apostles was still cherished and where Christians were already numerous. His education was exceptionally liberal, for, besides a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, he had an acquaintance with Greek philosophy and literature. Irenaeus had also the privilege of sitting at the feet of men who had known the Apostles. Of these the one who made the deepest impression on him was St. Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna. All through his life, he told a friend, he could recall every detail of Polycarp's appearance, his voice, and the very words he used when telling what he had heard from John the Evangelist and others who had seen Jesus.

From early times commerce had been brisk between the ports of Asia Minor and the city of Marseilles, at the mouth of the Rhone River. In the second century of the Christian era Levantine traders were conveying their wares up the river as far as Lyons, the most populous city of Gaul and an important mart for all Western Europe. In the train of these Asiatic merchants, many of whom settled in Lyons, came Christian missionaries, who brought the Gospel to the pagan Gauls and founded a vigorous church. Here Irenaeus was sent to serve as priest under the bishop, Pothinus.

The high regard which Irenaeus earned for himself at Lyons was shown in the year 177, when he was chosen to go on a serious mission to Rome. He was the bearer of a letter to Pope Eleutherius, urging him to deal firmly with the Montanist[2] faction in faraway Phrygia, for heresy was now rampant in the East. This mission explains how it was that Irenaeus did not share in the martyrdom of his fellow Christians. A persecution broke out, and some of the leaders of the Lyons church were imprisoned; a few suffered martyrdom. This was in the reign of the philosophical pagan emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Since Lyons was a vital outpost of imperial power, adorned with temples and fine public buildings, the Roman officials perhaps thought it necessary to keep the new religion in check here. When Irenaeus returned from Rome it was to fill the now vacant bishopric. The brief period of persecution was over, and the twenty or more years of his episcopate were fairly peaceful. In addition to his pastoral duties at Lyons, Irenaeus is said to have extended the sphere of Christian influence by sending missionaries to other towns of Gaul-SS. Felix, Fortunatus, and Achilleus to Valence, and SS. Ferrutius and Ferreolus to Besancon. The bishop identified himself with his flock so completely as to speak habitually the native tongue instead of Latin or Greek, and to encourage all priests to do likewise.

The spread of Gnosticism in Gaul led Irenaeus to make a careful study of its tenets, not an easy matter since each Gnostic teacher was inclined to introduce subtleties of his own. He was, Tertullian tells us, "a curious explorer of all kinds of learning," and the task interested him. His treatise Against the Heresies, in five books, sets forth fully the doctrines of the main dissident sects of the day and then contrasts them with the words of Scripture and the teachings of the Apostles, as preserved not only in sacred writings but by oral tradition in the churches which the Apostles founded. Above all, he cites the authoritative tradition of the Church of Rome, handed down from Peter and Paul through an unbroken succession of bishops. In his theological works Irenaeus especially shows the influence of St. Paul and St. John. An humble, patient man, he writes of controversial matters with a moderation and courtesy unusual in this age of perfervid conviction.

An example of his method is his discussion of one type of Gnostic doctrine, that the visible world was created and is sustained and governed by angelic beings, but not by God, who remains unconnected with it, aloof and unmoved in his own inaccessible sphere. Irenaeus states the theory, develops it to a logical conclusion, and then by an effective reductio ad absurdum demonstrates its fallacy. The Christian doctrine of a close continuing relationship between the Triune God and the world He created Irenaeus describes thus: "The Father is above all, and He is the Head of Christ; the Word (Logos) is through all things and is Himself the Head of the Church, while the Spirit is in us all, and His is the living water which the Lord gave to those who believe in Him and love Him, and who know that there is one Father above all things and through all things." Irenaeus was convinced that the veil of mystery which enveloped Gnosticism was part of its attraction, and he was determined to "strip the fox," as he expressed it. His book, written in Greek and quickly translated into Latin, was widely circulated, and from this time on Gnosticism presented no serious threat.

Thirteen or fourteen years after his mission to Rome, Irenaeus attempted mediation between another Pope and a body of Christians in Asia Minor called the Quartodecimans,[3] who refused to fix the day of Easter by the method commonly used by Christians. Pope Victor had excommunicated them, and Irenaeus pleaded with him in a beautiful letter to raise the ban, pointing out that these Asiatics were only following their Apostolic tradition, and that the difference of opinion on this minor point had not prevented St. Polycarp and many others from staying in communion. At the end of the fourth century Jerome wrote that many Eastern bishops still adhered to the ancient Jewish calendar.

The date of the death of Irenaeus is usually given as about the year 203. According to a late and dubious tradition he suffered martyrdom under Septimius Severus. His book Against the Heresies has come down to us entire in its Latin version; and an Armenian translation of his Exposition of Apostolic Preaching has lately been discovered. Though the rest of his writings have perished, in these two works may be found the elements of a complete system of Catholic theology.

Excerpts from Against the Heresies

I. We have learned the plan of our salvation entirely from the men through whom the Gospel came to us. At first they proclaimed it abroad; then later, by the will of God, they wrote it down for us in the Scriptures to be the foundation and pillar of our faith....

2. But when we refute these people [the heretics] out of the Scriptures, they turn and accuse the very Scriptures, on the ground that they are mistaken or not authoritative or not consistent in their narrative, and they say that the truth cannot be learned from them by persons who do not know the tradition, and that that was not transmitted in writing but by word of mouth....

3. Now it is within the power of anyone who cares to find out the truth, to know the tradition of the Apostles, professed throughout the world in every church. We can name those too who were appointed bishops by the Apostles in the churches and their successors down to our own time.... But inasmuch as it would be very tedious in a book like this to rehearse the lines of succession in every church, we will put to confusion all those who, either from waywardness or conceit or blindness or obstinacy combine together against the truth, by pointing to the tradition, derived from the Apostles, of that great and illustrious Church founded and organized at Rome by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, and to the faith declared to mankind and handed down to our own time through its bishops in their succession. For with this Church, because of its more powerful leadership, every church, that is to say, the faithful from everywhere, must needs agree, and in it the tradition that springs from the Apostles has been continuously preserved by men from everywhere....

4. Seeing, therefore, that we have such testimony, we do not need to seek elsewhere the truth which it is easy to find in the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man at a bank, deposited lavishly with her all aspects of the truth, so that everyone, whoever will, may draw from her the water of life. For she is the door to life, and all others are thieves and robbers. For this reason we must shun them and love the things of the Church with the utmost diligence and keep hold of the tradition of the truth....

This is the course followed by the barbarian peoples[4] who believe in Christ and have salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit without paper or ink, but who guard carefully the ancient tradition. For they believe in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things therein through Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who for his surpassing love towards his creation underwent birth from a virgin, uniting man through himself to God, and who suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again and was received up in splendor, and who shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved and the Judge of those who are judged, to send into eternal fire those who pervert the truth and despise his Father and his coming.

NOTES

1. Gnostic is the name applied to a fluctuating set of Eastern dualist beliefs, older than Christianity, though they took over features from Christianity in the course of their spread westward. The Docetists of Ignatius' day may be regarded as a branch of the Gnostics. In general the latter took the view that the creator of the gross world of matter, the God of the Old Testament, was a dark and brutal deity, forever at war with the pure and spiritual God of light, depicted in the New Testament, from whom Jesus had been an emanation. Jesus, therefore, only appeared to be born and die and could never have suffered contamination by mortal flesh. The Gnostic movement, with its denial of Christ's humanity, vexed the Church in one form or another for several centuries. In the Middle Ages it was known as Manichaeism.

2. The Montanists, followers of a Phrygian priest, Montanus, were a set of Christians who believed in a speedy return of Christ to earth. They practiced a rigid asceticism and accepted as their only authority the revelations of God to each individual soul. They therefore presented serious obstacles to the setting up of an orderly church organization. They are not heard of after the second century.

3. The Quartodecimans observed Easter on the second day after the Passover of the Jews, that is, on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nisan, regardless of the day of the week on which it fell. The majority of Christians celebrated it on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring equinox

4. That is, the Gallic provincials among whom Irenaeus was living.

(The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, I [885].)
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Source: Lives of Saints, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.


St. Irenaeus of Lyons

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