Saint Irenaeus, Witness to Tradition

Saint Irenaeus (+200 a.d.), bishop of Lyons in the second century of the Church’s existence, a disciple of the martyr Saint Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of Saint John the Apostle, is himself not only one of the clearest links to apostolic Tradition, but his writings and thoughts form the basis of what we now know as that queen of the sciences, ‘theology’, the application of reason to the revealed word of God.

Raised in Asia Minor in a Christian household, near what is now Izmir, Turkey, Irenaeus, whose name means ‘maker of peace’, traveled west, was ordained a priest, and, his spiritual and intellectual gifts clearly recognized, eventually consecrated bishop.

Irenaeus wrote much, and much of what he wrote thankfully survives.  His main battle was against the Gnostics, a powerful sect that claimed to have secret, esoteric, often bizarre and dualistic (that matter and the body are evil), knowledge from Christ Himself, separating themselves from the hierarchical and Catholic Church. They were the first real ‘heretics’, literally, those who create a schism or rip in the Body of Christ, and since that day there have always been those, especially those gifted with high intelligence, zeal and a critical spirit, who think they know better than the Church, the Pope, the bishops, the Magisterium.

The saint’s powerful treatise Adversus haereses (Against Heresies) put paid to the Gnostics, arguing against their doctrines with a power, clarity and simplicity that has provided a model for clear theological thinking ever since.

This work is quoted from at length in the first section of the universal Catechism (cf., #172-175), and it is worth quoting also here as we meditate upon this saint today, signifying the unity that has been the primary hallmark of the Church from her very foundation:

Indeed, the Church, though scattered throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, having received the faith from the apostles and their disciples. . . guards [this preaching and faith] with care, as dwelling in but a single house, and similarly believes as if having but one soul and a single heart, and preaches, teaches and hands on this faith with a unanimous voice, as if possessing only one mouth…

For though languages differ throughout the world, the content of the Tradition is one and the same. the Churches established in Germany have no other faith or Tradition, nor do those of the Iberians, nor those of the Celts, nor those of the East, of Egypt, of Libya, nor those established at the centre of the world. . The Church’s message “is true and solid, in which one and the same way of salvation appears throughout the whole world…

We guard with care the faith that we have received from the Church, for without ceasing, under the action of God’s Spirit, this deposit of great price, as if in an excellent vessel, is constantly being renewed and causes the very vessel that contains it to be renewed

Tradition has it that the holy bishop and doctor was martyred in a local persecution of Catholics in the year 200, his relics placed in the church of Saint Joseph in Lyons, soon renamed Irenaeus after him as devotion to him grew.

Alas, heresies continued to abound, as the tomb of the saint was pillaged and destroyed by the Huguenots (French Calvinists) in 1562. We would do well to meditate upon the saint’s words, as even within the Catholic Church, schisms in practice, and even in doctrine, are becoming all-too-evident.  What is old is what is new again.

With Saint Irenaeus, we may find the truth in Tradition, in that constant and firm teaching of the Catholic Church, going back to the Apostles, found in the Catechism, encyclicals, and all the definitive teaching of the Magisterium, which helps us understand Scripture and the very mind and will of Christ.

We may trust that grace and truth will abound all the more, and will triumph in the end, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, and simple, child-like hearts open to the grace of God.

Saint Irenaeus, ora pro nobis!