In his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict continued his series on the Church Fathers. We’ve moved all the way to Irenaeus (second century). Benedict begins with the historical facts and then makes a beeline for the heart of the ancients’ wisdom.
Irenaeus was most probably born in Smyrna (today Izmir, in Turkey) between the years 135 and 140. There, while still a youth, he attended the school of Bishop Polycarp, for his part, a disciple of the apostle John. We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but the move must have coincided with the first developments of the Christian community in Lyons: There, in 177, we find Irenaeus mentioned among the college of presbyters.
That year he was sent to Rome, bearer of a letter from the community of Lyons to Pope Eleutherius. The Roman mission took Irenaeus away from the persecution by Marcus Aurelius, in which at least 48 martyrs died, among them the bishop of Lyons himself, the 90-year-old Pothinus, who died of mistreatment in jail. Thus, on his return, Irenaeus was elected bishop of the city. The new pastor dedicated himself entirely to his episcopal ministry, which ended around 202-203, perhaps by martyrdom.
Irenaeus is above all a man of faith and a pastor. Like the Good Shepherd, he has prudence, a richness of doctrine, and missionary zeal. As a writer, he aims for a twofold objective: to defend true doctrine from the attacks of the heretics, and to clearly expound the truth of the faith. His two works still in existence correspond exactly to the fulfillment of these two objectives: the five books “Against Heresies,” and the “Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching” (which could be called the oldest “catechism of Christian doctrine”). Without a doubt, Irenaeus is the champion in the fight against heresies.
The Church of the second century was threatened by so-called gnosticism, a doctrine which claimed that the faith taught by the Church was nothing more than symbolism for the simpleminded, those unable to grasp more difficult things. Instead, the initiated, the intellectuals — they called themselves gnostics — could understand what was behind the symbolism, and thus would form an elite, intellectual Christianity.
Irenaeus is available in English in the 19th-century Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Father Dominic Unger was working on a better English translation, and it’s at least partially published in the Ancient Christian Writers series. Top minds are continuing the work, I’m told. ACW also publishes Irenaeus’s Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, as does St. Vladimir Seminary’s Popular Patristics series.