February 25, 2022

Reflection / John F. Fink

St. Irenaeus of Lyons—our newest, and oldest, doctor of the Church

John F. FinkOn Jan. 21, Pope Francis did something that no other pope had ever done: He named a saint who lived prior to the Council of Nicaea as a Doctor of the Church.

St. Irenaeus lived during the second century. If anyone asks you how long it takes to be named a doctor of the Church, you can answer, “Sometimes almost 2,000 years.”

I can understand why some Catholics aren’t much interested in the doctors of the Church, but at the turn of the century I spent a lot of time researching and writing two books about them: one about those who lived before the 16th century and the other about those who lived during the 16th century and since.

When those books were published in 2000, there were 33 doctors. With the addition of St. Irenaeus, there are now 37.

Pope Francis assigned St. Irenaeus the title “doctor of unity” for his efforts to unite the Church, which was competing against the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit.

Other doctors have also received titles. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, is known as “the angelic doctor,” St. Bonaventure as “the seraphic doctor,” St. Teresa of Avila as “the doctor of prayer,” and St. Francis de Sales as “the doctor of charity.”

In naming St. Irenaeus a doctor of the Church, Pope Francis accepted an appeal from the French bishops. Before making the appeal, the bishops obtained agreement from other episcopal conferences, including that of the U.S. bishops.

St. Irenaeus might also be the first doctor of the Church to die as a martyr. He is honored in the liturgy as bishop and martyr, but there is some doubt over whether or not he was a martyr.

He was born around the year 130, probably in Smyrna in what is now Turkey. This was the home of St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, and Irenaeus became a disciple of St. Polycarp while he was still young.

Irenaeus studied in Rome and then Polycarp sent him as a missionary to Ludugunum, now known as Lyons, France. He served as a presbyter, or priest, there and quickly became highly esteemed by the people of Lyons.

In 177, Lyons’ bishop, Pothinus, sent Irenaeus to Rome with two letters asking Pope Eleutherius to have mercy and tolerance toward adherents of the Montanist heresy in Asia Minor. That trip probably saved his life because he was in Rome when a severe persecution broke out in Lyons; Bishop Pothinus and many other Christians were put to death.

After his return to Lyons the following year, Irenaeus was chosen as the bishop there, the position he held until his death around 200 or 202.

St. Irenaeus is known mainly for his clear and systematic teaching of the Christian faith because he considered the role of a bishop primarily as a teacher. He was particularly interested in apostolic succession, and he produced one of the earliest lists of the first bishops, going back to the time of the Apostles.

He is most known, though, for his treatises Against All Heresies, written about the year 180. Most of these heresies, as already mentioned, were from Gnosticism. He clearly understood the need to articulate the orthodox faith taught by the Apostles and against those who promoted other ideas that threatened the Apostles’ teachings. All this was more than 100 years prior to the Council of Nicaea, which began to codify Christian dogma.

One of St. Irenaeus’s battles was with Marcion, a prominent gnostic who erroneously taught that the God of the New Testament is not the same as the God of the Old Testament.

Although he has just now been named a doctor of the Church, St. Irenaeus has always been known as a brilliant and orthodox teacher of the faith. The documents of the Second Vatican Council cite 14 references to his work, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites him 29 times.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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