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Servant Spirit

Jason Adkins, an attorney from St. Paul, Minnesota, interviewed me for The Catholic Servant newspaper. Here’s his article, titled “Always Timely Witnesses: Pope Benedict Highlights the Church Fathers.”

By dedicating his recent Wednesday audiences to the Apostles and the Church Fathers, Pope Benedict XVI has indicated to the Church that sometimes the “who” of the Faith is just as important to the “what” of the Faith.

The Holy Father regularly returns to the theme that Christianity is an event—an encounter with the person of Christ. It seems rather appropriate then that the Church and her members often come to know the person of Christ through other persons, particularly His “co-workers of the truth”—the Apostles and their successors. (Incidentally, this is the papal motto.)

In singling out the Church Fathers for deeper reflection, the Holy Father is encouraging the Church to re-encounter these great teachers that we may come to know our Lord in deeper friendship, and enter into the Trinitarian life of God.

For a closer look at the Church Fathers, The Catholic Servant turned to noted apologist Mike Aquilina. Aquilina is vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and has hosted six television series on EWTN. He is author or editor of more than a dozen books on Catholic history, doctrine and devotion including The Fathers of the Church (Our Sunday Visitor, 2006) and The Resilient Church (Word Among Us, 2007).

The Catholic Servant: Pope Benedict has dedicated his recent Wednesday audiences to the Church fathers. Who are the Church fathers, and why is the pope pointing us in their direction?

Aquilina: The Fathers are the important teachers of the earliest centuries of Christianity—from the time of the Apostles until about a century after the rise of Islam. Most of the Fathers are venerated as saints.

Hans Urs von Balthasar noted a certain youthfulness and freshness in their works. The pope certainly recognizes those qualities, and he surely hopes we’ll all catch the spirit.

Pope Benedict is also an experienced teacher, and he knows that the ancient world casts a spell on modern minds. People are fascinated by Christian antiquity. That’s why there’s so much interest in The Da Vinci Code, and the Gospel of Judas, and the alleged tomb of Jesus’ family.

Antiquity is attractive, appealing, and it always has been. Savvy marketers know that, and so do savvy teachers like the pope.

The Catholic Servant: On what aspects of the Church fathers has the pope particularly focused?

Aquilina: In general, he seems most interested in their biblical interpretation and spiritual counsel, especially regarding prayer. He also highlights each Father’s contribution to the development of doctrine and theology. But it’s not all heady stuff. He’s careful to tease out what is distinctive and attractive in the personality of each man.

The Catholic Servant: Are the Church Fathers notable as great theologians and significant historical figures, or are they in some way authoritative as well?

Aquilina: Yes, the Fathers are important theologians, historical figures and even great intercessors. But 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 accused St. Ambrose of plagiarism. In fact, St. Jerome had disagreements with almost everyone he met.

But the Council of Trent declared that, when 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.

Cardinal Newman described the Fathers as “honest informants” who bear authority, but not a sufficient authority in themselves. Their words bear testimony to something that precedes them, something greater than them, a patrimony that they wanted to safeguard for the next generation.

For the earliest Fathers, like Polycarp, that inheritance was the living voice of the Apostles. Polycarp heard the Gospel from John the Evangelist and passed it directly to Irenaeus, who passed it to Hippolytus, and so it has come down to us.

The Fathers witness to a living, teaching Church — the magisterium that they recognized then, we do today.

The Catholic Servant: What is the connection between the Church fathers and Sacred Tradition?

Aquilina: The Catechism (n. 688) describes the Fathers as “always timely witnesses” to Tradition. We don’t say that their writings “are” the Tradition. Their writings witness to the Gospel that is unwritten, but passed down in the Church. They’re witnesses in the court of history.

For example, we want to be faithful and to worship in the way that Christians have always worshipped. Well, how do we know anything about ancient Christian worship? And how do we know that it was anything like our worship today? We know because the Fathers bear witness to it.

The same goes for the way we divide up labor and recognize authority within the Church. We want to be faithful and live as our ancestors did, going all the way back to the apostles.

So how do we know that they had bishops, priests, deacons, and a pope? Because the Fathers, from the very first generations, bear witness to the Church’s hierarchical order. St. Clement of Rome wrote it up in some detail before the year 96 A.D. St. Ignatius confirmed it in 107 A.D. And the same teaching recurs in every generation afterward.

The later Fathers—many of whom were bishops themselves—often made appeals to the Pope. Athanasius did, and so did Basil, Chyrsostom, Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria.

Tradition isn’t merely a collection of antiques. The faith of our Fathers is living still. The Fathers bear witness to it, just as we bear witness for future generations.

The Catholic Servant: What can the Church fathers teach us about the task of the theologian?

Aquilina: To desire always to teach what the Catholic Church teaches. Some of the Fathers were speculative theologians, and some of them—especially early in history—stated important doctrines imprecisely or even erroneously.

Origen is a prime example. This prolific author was among the first to employ the terms of Greek philosophy in his reflection on the truth of revelation. His work was full of trial and occasional error.

But he repeatedly emphasized his desire to teach only what the Catholic Church taught, and he urged his students and readers to look first to the Church. Origen labored through a long life. In his old age, he was tortured for the faith, and he died from the injuries.

Some later Fathers considered him an arch-heretic, and councils even condemned some propositions attributed to him. But other Fathers—especially the Cappadocians Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzen—revered Origen’s teaching. Christian thinkers continued to find inspiration in his work, and his memory was somewhat rehabilitated in the last century. Recent popes have taken to quoting him.

I think it is significant that Pope Benedict dedicated not one, but two of his Wednesday audiences to the life and work of Origen; and in doing so he uttered not a single critical word, but rather held him up as an intellectual and spiritual master. How can that be? Because Origen wanted only to think in the Church, and think with the Church.

Theologians may speculate, but they must also be held accountable. If they’re teachers or writers, they should, like Origen, make clear distinctions between the Church’s teachings and their own opinions.

The Catholic Servant: Which Church fathers have been particularly influential on Pope Benedict and why?

Aquilina: The Holy Father is a biblical theologian, and he often returns to the great biblical interpreters and preachers. His doctoral dissertation was on Augustine, and he has never strayed far from the bishop of Hippo.

But he also shows eclectic interests in other figures from antiquity: Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian and Gregory of Nyssa. He has a profound knowledge of the ancient liturgies and the commentators on the liturgy. He has even written rather movingly of the Church’s enemies, such as Julian the Apostate.

For Pope Benedict, the ancient Fathers are teachers and, in a very real sense, contemporaries. Now he’s helping us to acquire that same sense of the Fathers.

One thought on “Servant Spirit

  1. Thank you for an enlightening post. I uploaded my own post, titled “Honor Thy Fathers,” to a blog with a very different audience in order to encourage them to pay attention to the church fathers.

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