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Meet the Fathers

This essay originally appeared in The Catholic Answer magazine, published by Our Sunday Visitor. OSV also publishes four of my books on the Fathers (see the covers at left). Some material in this post is adapted from the newly expanded edition of my book The Fathers of the Church.

My dad was a quiet man. On the rare occasions he spoke about his past, I would scribble notes. My siblings noticed; and, about a week after Dad died, one by one they asked whether I might share my notes with them.

The words of our natural fathers are precious to us. Our fathers are key to a mystery we spend a lifetime trying to solve: ourselves. Their past is our own, given to us in so many silent ways as they guide our childhood steps. The paths we walk are paths to which they led us. Their words and deeds are critical details in the story of our own lives.

If all that is true of our natural fathers, how much more true of our fathers in Christian faith — the Fathers of the Church?

Who Are the Fathers?

The Fathers of the Church are a select group of early Christian teachers, usually numbered around a hundred. The Church has long revered them and given them a privileged place of doctrinal authority. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the Fathers among its “principal sources,” immediately after the Bible and just before the liturgy (n. 11).

The age of the Fathers, sometimes called the Patristic Era, stretched from the middle of the first century until the middle of the eighth, at the death of St. John of Damascus. Some of the earliest Fathers lived during the lifetime of the Apostles, and the teaching of these men — called the Apostolic Fathers — has always received special veneration. The Apostolic Fathers are sometimes called the “first echo” of the Apostles.

But, even beyond the first echo, the Church considers the Patristic Era in general to be a time of extraordinary grace for the expression and development of Christian dogma.

The Catechism (n. 688) presents the Fathers as “always timely witnesses” to the Sacred Tradition that comes from Jesus Himself — the Gospel entrusted to the Church and handed on even before the gospels were written (see 2 Thess 2:14, 1 Tim 6:20 and 2 Tim 1:13). It is important for us to get this teaching right. The Fathers are witnesses to the Tradition, which predates them. They themselves are not the Tradition.

The Fathers provide us a crucial link. They bear witness to the authenticity of our liturgy, our priesthood, our canon of sacred Scriptures. They show us our Church’s unbroken continuity with the Church of the Apostles. We share the same Tradition, though we’ve grown and developed in our understanding and expression of that Tradition.

What Makes a Father?

The Church has always honored the doctrine of the Fathers. This was true even of the Fathers themselves. Like the rabbis of early Judaism, the early Christian teachers took care to demonstrate that their teaching was not their own, but rather stretched back to the beginning. We see this already in the generation after the Apostles. St. Clement of Rome (probably writing before 70 A.D.) shows that his pedigree comes from two Apostles, Peter and Paul. Papias of Hieropolis, writing a few decades later, also connects the dots from his own generation to Jesus’.

In the second century, we meet St. Irenaeus of Lyons (modern France), who learned the faith from Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn learned from St. John the Apostle. St. Irenaeus shows how this succession has been institutionalized in the line of bishops in every Church. His list of the Popes is the earliest witness we have to the immediate successors of St. Peter.

As the generations passed, more teachers justified their doctrine by showing a catena (Latin for “chain”) of unbroken teaching stretching, from Father to Father, back to the Apostles. By the fifth century, this practice had become almost a requirement for theologians and teachers.

But, as disputes and heresies multiplied, it became necessary to designate which ancient teachings were authoritative and which were not. Thus, in the fifth century, we find, in a decree attributed to Pope Gelasius I, history’s first list of Church Fathers designated as such. In the same century, St. Vincent of Lerins sketched out the ground rules for the field known today as “patristics” or “patrology,” the study of the Church Fathers.

St. Vincent, who would himself eventually win recognition as a Father, ventured a definition. The Fathers, he wrote, are “those alone who, though in diverse times and places, yet persevering in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, have been approved teachers.”

He spelled out four criteria, which would stand ever after as the measure:

1. sound doctrine;
2. holy life;
3. Church approval; and
4. antiquity.

Those ancient Christians who don’t meet all these criteria are often described as “ecclesiastical writers” rather than Church Fathers.

Still, there is no official list of the Fathers, no process of canonization similar to a cause for sainthood. The ancient list attributed to Pope Gelasius is of uncertain origin; and, in any event, it was drawn up while the age of the Fathers was still in progress.

Theologians throughout history have ventured their own lists, varying in length and differing significantly from one another. For many centuries, Tertullian, a third-century African layman, was kept off many lists because he ventured into schism in his old age. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites him often and even names him among “the Fathers of the Church” (see n. 1446). Another controversial teacher, Origen of Alexandria (third century), taught some doctrines that were later (after his death) condemned by the Church. His defenders quote his oft-expressed wish never to teach anything contrary to the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, he has been kept off the lists through most of history. Yet, in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, he has often been cited as an authority in official Church documents.

It’s important for us to keep in mind that the works of the Fathers, unlike the books of the Bible, are neither inspired nor inerrant; and, unlike the popes, the Fathers do not teach infallibly. In fact, they often disagree with one another, and some of them didn’t get along very well. St. Jerome argued against St. John Chrysostom; St. Jerome argued with St. Augustine; St. Jerome argued with almost everyone.

When, however, there is a “consensus of the Fathers” on a particular doctrine or interpretation of Scripture, then the position of the Fathers must be held as true.

Are Origen and Tertullian “Church Fathers” or “ecclesiastical writers”? Patristic scholars will likely be duking that one out for centuries to come.

How the Fathers Fathered

The history of the early Church is more than just a succession of creeds, councils, persecutions, and heresies. It is the story of a family, and of how the Fathers of that family strove to keep their household together, to preserve the family’s patrimony, to teach and discipline their children, and to protect the family from danger. Only when we understand them as fathers can we truly understand the Church Fathers.

In the New Testament, the Apostles clearly see themselves as fathers to the newborn Church. St. Paul reminded the Christians of Corinth that he was their “father in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 4:15), and he addressed both Timothy and Titus as his true children (1 Tim 1:2; Ti 1:4). St. John also greeted his flock as “my little children” (1 Jn 2:1). St. Peter explicitly referred to Christians of his own generation as “the fathers” (2 Pt 3:4).

The custom of calling bishops “Father” continued with the passing of the Apostles’ generation. The word “pope” comes from Latin and Greek words meaning “father,” and in the early centuries was applied to diocesan bishops as well as the bishop of Rome. Eventually, common usage extended the application of the title “Father” to priests and monks, too, as is today the custom in English-speaking countries.

Any list of the Fathers of the Church, however, includes lay people as well — the philosopher Justin Martyr, for example, and his contemporary Hermas, who was a farmer. In what sense were they Fathers?

Quite simply, their teaching shows a real paternal care for the Church, a care they shared with their bishops. Nowhere is this expressed more vividly than when Tertullian vigorously confronts heretics as poachers on his family’s estate, trespassers who threatened his patrimony: “Who are you . . . Marcion, by what right do you chop my wood? By whose permission, Valentinus, are you diverting my streams? By what power, Apelles, are you removing my landmarks? This is my property. . . . I hold sure title-deeds from the original owners themselves, to whom the estate belonged. I am the heir of the Apostles.”

What About the Mothers?

Were there “Mothers of the Church”? Well, yes and no.

We possess very few writings by women from the ancient world. Christian women are probably slightly better represented than their pagan counterparts. The many collections of “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” actually include proverbs by women ascetics, who are called “Amma,” or “Mother.”

St. John Chrysostom (fifth century) carried on extensive correspondence with an abbess named Olympias, but her letters have not survived. His contemporary St. Jerome corresponded with many holy and scholarly women; but, again, we have mostly Jerome’s end of the conversation. Tertullian has preserved the words of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity. In the late fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a profoundly moving biography of his sister St. Macrina.

Their contemporaries honored these women as maternal figures. The Church has always honored them as saints. There is no custom of calling them “Mothers of the Church,” but there is no reason why individual Christians might not revere them as such.

Fatherly Advice

Sooner or later, every thinking Christian discovers the duty to study the Church Fathers. It presents itself as a matter of religious literacy, if not a debt of ancestral honor.

They preached the faith in a way that won over the pagan world. During the first three centuries, the Church grew at a rate of forty percent per decade! We should at least learn from our Fathers.

What’s more, they gave their lives for us. Many of the Fathers died as witnesses to the faith. And their blood was the “seed” from which our Church grew and grew. We should at least honor their memory.

Honor your Fathers by reading them — and reading about them. I’ve posted reading lists here (the short form) and here (the long form). Among the links at left you’ll find online patristic resources.

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Mary’s Piece of the Rock

Kevin da Biblicalia brings us a mind-blowing Marian post that combines archeology, architecture, and the history of doctrine. From his conclusion:

It is, I think, beyond doubt that a Church of Mary Theotokos was constructed in the third quarter of the fifth century on the Temple Mount over the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple in order to commemorate the Eastern Christian tradition of Mary having grown up in the Temple itself. It may even have been at that point that the stairway and cave beneath the central rock (the former floor of the Holy of Holies) was cut, in order to provide a “luminous cave” as found in various other of the commemorated Holy Land sites … The plan of the presently standing Dome of the Rock preserves the plan of this ancient church (and perhaps even some of the structural elements?) which would have been destroyed by the Persians, along with most other churches in the Holy Land, only a few decades before the Dome itself was constructed.

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Ankara’s Aweigh

Well, the Pope is all over the news treading the tarmac in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, and visiting tombs there. So the Buckeye Banshee Maureen coaxed me out of my cave to give a brief tour of the city known to readers of the Fathers as Ancyra.

The pope knows as well as Maureen that he is walking on holy ground, sanctified by the blood of martyrs, sacred to the memory of the Fathers. Ancyra was the site of three important gathering of bishops. The old Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes them briefly and well. The first Synod of Ancyra came in 314 A.D., just after the most severe and thoroughgoing persecution of the early Church, the persecution of Diocletian. The bishops gathered to settle a number of disciplinary questions, perhaps most importantly the question of the readmission of the “lapsi,” those who had renounced faith under torture or threat of death. That council produced twenty-five canons. Nine deal with conditions for the penance and reconciliation of the lapsi. All in all, an important meeting of leaders proven by fire, resulting in good guidance for the Church, and a monument of the early Church’s administration of the sacrament of penance.

The synod of 358 was not so good. It was a Semi-Arian gathering, and while the bishops there condemned the grosser Arian blasphemies, they set forth a poor remedy — a compromise proposition that the Son was similar to the Father, but not identical in substance. Homoousios meant “same in substance” (or “one in being,” as we recite in the Sunday Mass translation of the creed). Homoiousios — the word the semi-Arians promoted — meant “similar in substance.” This comporomise caused no end of difficulty for the good guys, like St. Athanasius. Homoousios, homoiousios: it was just one iota’s difference. But that was all the difference in the world, and good men were willing to die for the sake of the difference.

In 375, Arian bishops met at Ancyra and deposed several bishops, among them the brilliant St. Gregory of Nyssa. He was an incompetent administrator. We know this from his own admissions and from the exasperation of his brother St. Basil the Great. But he was an effective teacher, and this was surely the cause of his deposition.

One of Ancyra’s most famous sons was the fourth-century bishop Basil, a member of the homoiousian party — in fact, he was the very man who presided over the semi-Arian synod in 358. (Basil of Ancyra is not to be confused with Basil the Great, who was an early associate of his.) This lesser Basil opposed the hardline Arians, but opposed Athanasius too, and he ardently promoted the use of terms of compromise in the creed.

History was to prove him badly mistaken. Yet, in spite of his linguistic failings, Basil certainly loved Christ and His Church. When the persecutions returned, ever so briefly, under the ex-Christian emperor Julian, Basil was forbidden to preach or preside at the liturgy. He did so anyway. He was captured, tried, and tortured at Ancyra. Julian himself, when passing through the city on his way to Antioch, tried to persuade Basil to give up the faith. Julian, who had written one of antiquity’s most famous anti-Christian tracts, told Basil: “I myself am well skilled in your mysteries; and I can inform you, that Christ, in whom you place your trust, died under Pilate, and remains among the dead.” Basil didn’t buy it. He replied: “You are deceived; you have renounced Christ at a time when he conferred on you the empire. But he will deprive you of it, together with your life. As you have thrown down his altars, so will he overturn your throne.” Enraged, Julian condemned Basil to be flayed alive. And he was. The bishop of Ancyra was hung up, first by the wrists, and then upside down by his ankles. His body was torn with rakes and finally pierced by hot iron spikes.

Julian the Apostate continued on his way to the empire’s frontier, where he would soon die in battle during his Persian campaign.

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The Papal Trail

Thanks to Huw at Doxos for sharing this great prayer of blessing for this week’s meeting of Pope Benedict and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The pope will be in Turkey Tuesday to Thursday, November 28-30. The prayer comes from Metropolitan Nicholas of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the USA, who asked that it be recited at all Divine Liturgies on the Sundays of November 19 and 26.

O Holy Father from Whom all blessings flow, we come before You in meekness and bow down: humbly we beseech You to look kindly upon the meeting of Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, and Pope Benedict, Pontiff of Rome. For too long, there has been division and alienation in the Church, when there should have been the unity of the Body of Christ. We beg Your mercy and wisdom, O Lord, to provide for the welfare of the holy churches of God and for their union. Let this occasion of fellowship be for the healing of old disputes. In Your infinite power, protect these Shepherds of the Great and Holy Pasture of Christ. Shield them, and all who attend, from the peril of harm. And in Your matchless grace, establish a bright new work in these latter days, so that the world might see the Face of Christ; so that men and women might repent, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved in the Apostolic Church of God. For these supplications, we humbly beseech You, Holy Father, hear us and have mercy…

If you don’t know Doxos, get to know it. Huw’s a southerner, a convert to Orthodoxy, and a great laborer for unity of east and west. Also, he posts the martyrology for each day, which is an important contribution to the patristiblogosphere.

You’ll find more on the papal-patriarchal visit at the website of the patriarchate.

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O Clement, O Sweet

Today’s the feast of Pope St. Clement I, aka St. Clement of Rome, one of the Apostolic Fathers — often called “the first echo of the apostles.” He knew Peter and Paul and was converted through their preaching. Irenaeus and many others attest that he came to inherit Peter’s office. We know little about Clement, though, except for the long and beautiful letter he wrote to the Church of Corinth. In it he admonishes them to return to peace and true doctrine, and to stop bickering. Along the way, he also provides us precious glimpses of the first-century Church’s liturgy, hierarchy, influences, and moral concerns. You’ll find a fresh, new translation of Clement at Kevin Edgecomb’s Biblicalia blog. In 2007 we at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology will be publishing Msgr. Thomas J. Herron’s monograph arguing for an early dating of Clement’s epistle (with an introduction by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron of Oakland, California). Msgr. Herron — like John A.T. Robinson and Joseph Ratzinger — argued that the text was written before 70 A.D.

I’m talking about Clement on KVSS this morning, and the show should show up for download on their special Aquilina audio page.

If you’d like to walk in the footsteps of St. Clement — and visit his home! — consider joining me, The St. Paul Center, and the gang from KVSS radio as we make our pilgrimage in May 2007.

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Pilgrims’ Regress

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all, even those of you who live in a land that doesn’t observe today as a holiday. The Greek word for “thanksgiving” will be familiar to anyone who has studied the Fathers. It’s there in the earliest documents — in the Didache and Clement and Ignatius — and it denotes the source and summit of Christian life. The Greek word for “thanksgiving” is “eucharistia” (the root of our “Eucharist”).

The word has deep roots. It appears in the Septuagint, the most common Greek translation of the Old Testament, in the Books of Wisdom, Sirach, and Second Maccabees. Another ancient Jewish translation, that of Aquila, uses the word “eucharistia” as the equivalent of the Hebrew “todah,” the thank-offering of bread and wine, so often alluded to in the Psalter, so often associated with the reign of King David. The rabbis of the Talmudic period predicted that, in the age of the Messiah, all sacrifice would cease — except the todah offering of bread and wine. (For more on the todah, see the extended discussions in Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth and Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass.)

Philo of Alexandria used the term “eucharistia” in several and varied ways, all studied in depth by the French patrologist Jean LaPorte in his book Eucharistia in Philo. In later work, La Porte went on to connect Philo’s “eucharistic” writings with those of the later Alexandrian Christians.

So enjoy the day all the more. Make it a thank-offering. And make it to the Eucharist, if you can.

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Serve It with Red Wine

My co-author Chris Bailey announces the arrival of our book, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence, now translated into Italian as Codice Graal. In case you wanted to know the Italian phrase for “detective story,” Chris informs us (after reading the back jacket) that it’s “detective story.” Watch for that funny little detail when Chris and I write our roman a clef.

After you’ve read the book in English and Italian, start immediately on Portuguese and French. You should be finished just in time for the German edition’s appearance in 2007.