The Fathers of the Church in Installments, Every Wednesday from the Vatican
It is the new series of weekly catecheses from Benedict XVI, dedicated to the great personalities of the ancient Church. Here are the first seven: on Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, May 4, 2007 – Speaking each Wednesday to the thirty to forty thousand faithful who flock to listen to him (twice as many as went to the audiences of his predecessor) Benedict XVI has been holding, since March, a new series of his weekly catecheses.
He dedicated the previous series to the twelve Apostles and to the disciples of whom the New Testament speaks. The pope illustrated these one by one.
Now he is tracing each time the profile of a “Father of the Church,” one of the great personalities of the ancient Church.
He began on March 7 with Saint Clement, the third bishop of Rome after Saint Peter. And he continued on the following Wednesdays with Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, Irenaeus.
After the Easter break, he resumed on April 18 with Clement of Alexandria, and on the two following Wednesdays with Origen, whom he describes as a person “so innovative as to give an irreversible new direction to the development of Christian thought.”
In this way, Benedict XVI is explaining to the faithful not so much the “what” of the Church, but the “who,” beginning with those who guided it during the first centuries, building up the great Tradition from which the Church of today draws.
The pope is careful, in fact, to bring to light each time not only the originality but also the perennial relevance of the work of each Father of the Church.
For example, with Saint Clement, Benedict XVI emphasizes his theses on the primacy of the bishop of Rome, on the relationship between laity and hierarchy, on the distinction between the sovereignty of Caesar and that of God.
With Saint Ignatius of Antioch, the pope brings to light his intuition of the catholicity of the Church, its universality.
In Justin, he admires the synthesis between evangelical truth and Greek philosophy, and the primacy he accords to the truth against the “custom” of the time.
With Saint Irenaeus, he exalts his defense of the apostolic tradition against the intellectualist deviations of the Gnostics.
With Clement of Alexandria, he emphasizes his further support for dialogue between the Christian faith and Greek philosophy.
With Origen, the pope praises his genius as an interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures – “as I tried to do somewhat in my book ‘Jesus of Nazareth’” – and his profound spirituality.
But like his previous series on the twelve Apostles, Benedict XVI’s preaching on the Fathers of the Church has a limitation: it reaches the general public only minimally. Almost all the Catholics around the world ignore what the pope says every Wednesday. Even those who have the fortune to hear him in person in Rome are almost never the same from week to week. They listen to one catechesis, but they aren’t familiar with the ones before and after it.
For this reason, too, it is indispensable to take a look at an entire span of audiences, in order to understand the teaching of Benedict XVI more deeply.
Here below are presented the first seven catecheses of the new series inaugurated by the pope on March 7, with as many profiles of Fathers of the Church.
The translations in English, French, and Spanish are from the Vatican, with the exception of the two most recent catecheses, which were prepared by this site:
1. St. Clement, Bishop of Rome
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Dear brothers and sisters, in these past months we have meditated on the figures of the individual Apostles and on the first witnesses of the Christian faith who are mentioned in the New Testament writings.
Let us now devote our attention to the Apostolic Fathers, that is, to the first and second generations in the Church subsequent to the Apostles. And thus, we can see where the Church's journey begins in history.
St Clement, Bishop of Rome in the last years of the first century, was the third Successor of Peter, after Linus and Anacletus. The most important testimony concerning his life comes from St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons until 202. He attests that Clement "had seen the blessed Apostles", "had been conversant with them", and "might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes" (Adversus Haer. 3, 3, 3).
Later testimonies which date back to between the fourth and sixth centuries attribute to Clement the title of martyr.
The authority and prestige of this Bishop of Rome were such that various writings were attributed to him, but the only one that is certainly his is the Letter to the Corinthians. Eusebius of Caesarea, the great "archivist" of Christian beginnings, presents it in these terms: "There is extant an Epistle of this Clement which is acknowledged to be genuine and is of considerable length and of remarkable merit. He wrote it in the name of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth, when a sedition had arisen in the latter Church. We know that this Epistle also has been publicly used in a great many Churches both in former times and in our own" (Hist. Eccl. 3, 16).
An almost canonical character was attributed to this Letter. At the beginning of this text - written in Greek - Clement expressed his regret that "the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves" (1, 1) had prevented him from intervening sooner. These "calamitous events" can be identified with Domitian's persecution: therefore, the Letter must have been written just after the Emperor's death and at the end of the persecution, that is, immediately after the year 96.
Clement's intervention - we are still in the first century - was prompted by the serious problems besetting the Church in Corinth: the elders of the community, in fact, had been deposed by some young contestants. The sorrowful event was recalled once again by St Irenaeus who wrote: "In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful Letter to the Corinthians exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the Apostles" (Adv. Haer. 3, 3, 3).
Thus, we could say that this Letter was a first exercise of the Roman primacy after St Peter's death. Clement's Letter touches on topics that were dear to St Paul, who had written two important Letters to the Corinthians, in particular the theological dialectic, perennially current, between the indicative of salvation and the imperative of moral commitment.
First of all came the joyful proclamation of saving grace. The Lord forewarns us and gives us his forgiveness, gives us his love and the grace to be Christians, his brothers and sisters.
It is a proclamation that fills our life with joy and gives certainty to our action: the Lord always forewarns us with his goodness and the Lord's goodness is always greater than all our sins.
However, we must commit ourselves in a way that is consistent with the gift received and respond to the proclamation of salvation with a generous and courageous journey of conversion.
In comparison with the Pauline model, the innovation added by Clement is to the doctrinal and practical sections, which constituted all the Pauline Letters, a "great prayer" that virtually concludes the Letter.
The Letter's immediate circumstances provided the Bishop of Rome with ample room for an intervention on the Church's identity and mission. If there were abuses in Corinth, Clement observed, the reason should be sought in the weakening of charity and of the other indispensable Christian virtues.
He therefore calls the faithful to humility and fraternal love, two truly constitutive virtues of being in the Church: "Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One", he warned, "let us do all those things which pertain to holiness" (30, 1).
In particular, the Bishop of Rome recalls that the Lord himself, "where and by whom he desires these things to be done, he himself has fixed by his own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to his good pleasure, may be acceptable unto him.... For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministries devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen" (40, 1-5: it can be noted that here, in this early first-century Letter, the Greek word "laikós" appears for the first time in Christian literature, meaning "a member of the laos", that is, "of the People of God").
In this way, referring to the liturgy of ancient Israel, Clement revealed his ideal Church. She was assembled by "the one Spirit of grace poured out upon us" which breathes on the various members of the Body of Christ, where all, united without any divisions, are "members of one another" (46, 6-7).
The clear distinction between the "lay person" and the hierarchy in no way signifies opposition, but only this organic connection of a body, an organism with its different functions. The Church, in fact, is not a place of confusion and anarchy where one can do what one likes all the time: each one in this organism, with an articulated structure, exercises his ministry in accordance with the vocation he has received.
With regard to community leaders, Clement clearly explains the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. The norms that regulate it derive ultimately from God himself. The Father sent Jesus Christ, who in turn sent the Apostles. They then sent the first heads of communities and established that they would be succeeded by other worthy men.
Everything, therefore, was made "in an orderly way, according to the will of God" (42). With these words, these sentences, St Clement underlined that the Church's structure was sacramental and not political.
The action of God who comes to meet us in the liturgy precedes our decisions and our ideas. The Church is above all a gift of God and not something we ourselves created; consequently, this sacramental structure does not only guarantee the common order but also this precedence of God's gift which we all need.
Finally, the "great prayer" confers a cosmic breath to the previous reasoning. Clement praises and thanks God for his marvellous providence of love that created the world and continues to save and sanctify it.
The prayer for rulers and governors acquires special importance. Subsequent to the New Testament texts, it is the oldest prayer extant for political institutions. Thus, in the period following their persecution, Christians, well aware that the persecutions would continue, never ceased to pray for the very authorities who had unjustly condemned them.
The reason is primarily Christological: it is necessary to pray for one's persecutors as Jesus did on the Cross.
But this prayer also contains a teaching that guides the attitude of Christians towards politics and the State down the centuries. In praying for the Authorities, Clement recognized the legitimacy of political institutions in the order established by God; at the same time, he expressed his concern that the Authorities would be docile to God, "devoutly in peace and meekness exercising the power given them by [God]" (61, 2).
Caesar is not everything. Another sovereignty emerges whose origins and essence are not of this world but of "the heavens above": it is that of Truth, which also claims a right to be heard by the State.
Thus, Clement's Letter addresses numerous themes of perennial timeliness. It is all the more meaningful since it represents, from the first century, the concern of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the other Churches.
In this same Spirit, let us make our own the invocations of the "great prayer" in which the Bishop of Rome makes himself the voice of the entire world: "Yes, O Lord, make your face to shine upon us for good in peace, that we may be shielded by your mighty hand... through the High Priest and Guardian of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and majesty to you both now and from generation to generation, for evermore" (60-61).
2. Saint Ignatius of Antioch
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Dear brothers and sisters, as we already did last Wednesday, we are speaking about the figures of the early Church. Last week we spoke of Pope Clement I, the third Successor of St Peter. Today, we will be speaking of St Ignatius, who was the third Bishop of Antioch from 70 to 107, the date of his martyrdom.
At that time, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were the three great metropolises of the Roman Empire. The Council of Nicea mentioned three "primacies": Rome, but also Alexandria and Antioch participated in a certain sense in a "primacy".
St Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch, which today is located in Turkey. Here in Antioch, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles, a flourishing Christian community developed. Its first Bishop was the Apostle Peter - or so tradition claims - and it was there that the disciples were "for the first time called Christians" (Acts 11: 26). Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth-century historian, dedicated an entire chapter of his Church History to the life and literary works of Ignatius (cf. 3: 36).
Eusebius writes: "The Report says that he [Ignatius] was sent from Syria to Rome, and became food for wild beasts on account of his testimony to Christ. And as he made the journey through Asia under the strictest military surveillance" (he called the guards "ten leopards" in his Letter to the Romans, 5: 1), "he fortified the parishes in the various cities where he stopped by homilies and exhortations, and warned them above all to be especially on their guard against the heresies that were then beginning to prevail, and exhorted them to hold fast to the tradition of the Apostles".
The first place Ignatius stopped on the way to his martyrdom was the city of Smyrna, where St Polycarp, a disciple of St John, was Bishop. Here, Ignatius wrote four letters, respectively to the Churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralli and Rome. "Having left Smyrna", Eusebius continues, Ignatius reached Troas and "wrote again": two letters to the Churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna, and one to Bishop Polycarp.
Thus, Eusebius completes the list of his letters, which have come down to us from the Church of the first century as a precious treasure. In reading these texts one feels the freshness of the faith of the generation which had still known the Apostles. In these letters, the ardent love of a saint can also be felt.
Lastly, the martyr travelled from Troas to Rome, where he was thrown to fierce wild animals in the Flavian Amphitheatre.
No Church Father has expressed the longing for union with Christ and for life in him with the intensity of Ignatius. We therefore read the Gospel passage on the vine, which according to John's Gospel is Jesus.
In fact, two spiritual "currents" converge in Ignatius, that of Paul, straining with all his might for union with Christ, and that of John, concentrated on life in him. In turn, these two currents translate into the imitation of Christ, whom Ignatius several times proclaimed as "my" or "our God".
Thus, Ignatius implores the Christians of Rome not to prevent his martyrdom since he is impatient "to attain to Jesus Christ". And he explains, "It is better for me to die on behalf of Jesus Christ than to reign over all the ends of the earth.... Him I seek, who died for us: him I desire, who rose again for our sake.... Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God!" (Romans, 5-6).
One can perceive in these words on fire with love, the pronounced Christological "realism" typical of the Church of Antioch, more focused than ever on the Incarnation of the Son of God and on his true and concrete humanity: "Jesus Christ", St Ignatius wrote to the Smyrnaeans, "was truly of the seed of David", "he was truly born of a virgin", "and was truly nailed [to the Cross] for us" (1: 1).
Ignatius' irresistible longing for union with Christ was the foundation of a real "mysticism of unity". He describes himself: "I therefore did what befitted me as a man devoted to unity" (Philadelphians, 8: 1).
For Ignatius unity was first and foremost a prerogative of God, who, since he exists as Three Persons, is One in absolute unity. Ignatius often used to repeat that God is unity and that in God alone is unity found in its pure and original state. Unity to be brought about on this earth by Christians is no more than an imitation as close as possible to the divine archetype.
Thus, Ignatius reached the point of being able to work out a vision of the Church strongly reminiscent of certain expressions in Clement of Rome's Letter to the Corinthians.
For example, he wrote to the Christians of Ephesus: "It is fitting that you should concur with the will of your Bishop, which you also do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the Bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore, in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, you become a choir, that being harmonious in love and taking up the song of God in unison you may with one voice sing to the Father..." (4: 1-2).
And after recommending to the Smyrnaeans: "Let no man do anything connected with Church without the Bishop", he confides to Polycarp: "My soul be for theirs who are submissive to the Bishop, to the presbyters and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God! Labour together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together as the stewards and associates and servants of God. Please him under whom you fight, and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your Baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply" (Polycarp, 6: 1-2).
Overall, it is possible to grasp in the Letters of Ignatius a sort of constant and fruitful dialectic between two characteristic aspects of Christian life: on the one hand, the hierarchical structure of the Ecclesial Community, and on the other, the fundamental unity that binds all the faithful in Christ.
Consequently, their roles cannot be opposed to one another. On the contrary, the insistence on communion among believers and of believers with their Pastors was constantly reformulated in eloquent images and analogies: the harp, strings, intonation, the concert, the symphony. The special responsibility of Bishops, priests and deacons in building the community is clear.
This applies first of all to their invitation to love and unity. "Be one", Ignatius wrote to the Magnesians, echoing the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper: "one supplication, one mind, one hope in love.... Therefore, all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one" (7: 1-2).
Ignatius was the first person in Christian literature to attribute to the Church the adjective "catholic" or "universal": "Wherever Jesus Christ is", he said, "there is the Catholic Church" (Smyrnaeans, 8: 2). And precisely in the service of unity to the Catholic Church, the Christian community of Rome exercised a sort of primacy of love: "The Church which presides in the place of the region of the Romans, and which is worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness... and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father..." (Romans, Prologue).
As can be seen, Ignatius is truly the "Doctor of Unity": unity of God and unity of Christ (despite the various heresies gaining ground which separated the human and the divine in Christ), unity of the Church, unity of the faithful in "faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred" (Smyrnaeans, 6: 1).
Ultimately, Ignatius' realism invites the faithful of yesterday and today, invites us all, to make a gradual synthesis between configuration to Christ (union with him, life in him) and dedication to his Church (unity with the Bishop, generous service to the community and to the world).
To summarize, it is necessary to achieve a synthesis between communion of the Church within herself and mission, the proclamation of the Gospel to others, until the other speaks through one dimension and believers increasingly "have obtained the inseparable Spirit, who is Jesus Christ" (Magnesians, 15).
Imploring from the Lord this "grace of unity" and in the conviction that the whole Church presides in charity (cf. Romans, Prologue), I address to you yourselves the same hope with which Ignatius ended his Letter to the Trallians: "Love one another with an undivided heart. Let my spirit be sanctified by yours, not only now, but also when I shall attain to God.... In [Jesus Christ] may you be found unblemished" (13).
And let us pray that the Lord will help us to attain this unity and to be found at last unstained, because it is love that purifies souls.
3. St Justin, Philosopher and Martyr
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Dear brothers and sisters,in these catecheses, we are reflecting on the great figures of the early Church. Today, we will talk about St Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, the most important of the second-century apologist Fathers.
The word "apologist" designates those ancient Christian writers who set out to defend the new religion from the weighty accusations of both pagans and Jews, and to spread the Christian doctrine in terms suited to the culture of their time.
Thus, the apologists had a twofold concern: that most properly called "apologetic", to defend the newborn Christianity (apologhía in Greek means, precisely, "defence"), and the pro-positive, "missionary" concern, to explain the content of the faith in a language and on a wavelength comprehensible to their contemporaries.
Justin was born in about the year 100 near ancient Shechem, Samaria, in the Holy Land; he spent a long time seeking the truth, moving through the various schools of the Greek philosophical tradition.
Finally, as he himself recounts in the first chapters of his Dialogue with Tryphon, a mysterious figure, an old man he met on the seashore, initially leads him into a crisis by showing him that it is impossible for the human being to satisfy his aspiration to the divine solely with his own forces. He then pointed out to him the ancient prophets as the people to turn to in order to find the way to God and "true philosophy".
In taking his leave, the old man urged him to pray that the gates of light would be opened to him.
The story foretells the crucial episode in Justin's life: at the end of a long philosophical journey, a quest for the truth, he arrived at the Christian faith. He founded a school in Rome where, free of charge, he initiated students into the new religion, considered as the true philosophy. Indeed, in it he had found the truth, hence, the art of living virtuously.
For this reason he was reported and beheaded in about 165 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor to whom Justin had actually addressed one of his Apologia.
These - the two Apologies and the Dialogue with the Hebrew, Tryphon - are his only surviving works. In them, Justin intends above all to illustrate the divine project of creation and salvation, which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Logos, that is, the eternal Word, eternal Reason, creative Reason.
Every person as a rational being shares in the Logos, carrying within himself a "seed", and can perceive glimmers of the truth. Thus, the same Logos who revealed himself as a prophetic figure to the Hebrews of the ancient Law also manifested himself partially, in "seeds of truth", in Greek philosophy.
Now, Justin concludes, since Christianity is the historical and personal manifestation of the Logos in his totality, it follows that "whatever things were rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians" (Second Apology of St Justin Martyr, 13: 4).
In this way, although Justin disputed Greek philosophy and its contradictions, he decisively oriented any philosophical truth to the Logos, giving reasons for the unusual "claim" to truth and universality of the Christian religion. If the Old Testament leaned towards Christ, just as the symbol is a guide to the reality represented, then Greek philosophy also aspired to Christ and the Gospel, just as the part strives to be united with the whole.
And he said that these two realities, the Old Testament and Greek philosophy, are like two paths that lead to Christ, to the Logos. This is why Greek philosophy cannot be opposed to Gospel truth, and Christians can draw from it confidently as from a good of their own.
Therefore, my venerable Predecessor, Pope John Paul II, described St Justin as a "pioneer of positive engagement with philosophical thinking - albeit with cautious discernment.... Although he continued to hold Greek philosophy in high esteem after his conversion, Justin claimed with power and clarity that he had found in Christianity 'the only sure and profitable philosophy' (Dial. 8: 1)" (Fides et Ratio, n. 38).
Overall, the figure and work of Justin mark the ancient Church's forceful option for philosophy, for reason, rather than for the religion of the pagans. With the pagan religion, in fact, the early Christians strenuously rejected every compromise. They held it to be idolatry, at the cost of being accused for this reason of "impiety" and "atheism".
Justin in particular, especially in his first Apology, mercilessly criticized the pagan religion and its myths, which he considered to be diabolically misleading on the path of truth.
Philosophy, on the other hand, represented the privileged area of the encounter between paganism, Judaism and Christianity, precisely at the level of the criticism of pagan religion and its false myths. "Our philosophy...": this is how another apologist, Bishop Melito of Sardis, a contemporary of Justin, came to define the new religion in a more explicit way (Ap. Hist. Eccl. 4, 26, 7).
In fact, the pagan religion did not follow the ways of the Logos, but clung to myth, even if Greek philosophy recognized that mythology was devoid of consistency with the truth.
Therefore, the decline of the pagan religion was inevitable: it was a logical consequence of the detachment of religion - reduced to an artificial collection of ceremonies, conventions and customs - from the truth of being.
Justin, and with him other apologists, adopted the clear stance taken by the Christian faith for the God of the philosophers against the false gods of the pagan religion.
It was the choice of the truth of being against the myth of custom. Several decades after Justin, Tertullian defined the same option of Christians with a lapidary sentence that still applies: "Dominus noster Christus veritatem se, non consuetudinem, cognominavit - Christ has said that he is truth not fashion" (De Virgin. Vel. 1, 1).
It should be noted in this regard that the term consuetudo, used here by Tertullian in reference to the pagan religion, can be translated into modern languages with the expressions: "cultural fashion", "current fads".
In a time like ours, marked by relativism in the discussion on values and on religion - as well as in interreligious dialogue - this is a lesson that should not be forgotten.
To this end, I suggest to you once again - and thus I conclude - the last words of the mysterious old man whom Justin the Philosopher met on the seashore: "Pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and his Christ have imparted wisdom" (Dial. 7: 3).
4. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons
Wednesday, March 28. 2007
Dear brothers and sisters, in the catechesis on the prominent figures of the early Church, today we come to the eminent personality of St Irenaeus of Lyons.
The biographical information on him comes from his own testimony, handed down to us by Eusebius in his fifth book on Church History. Irenaeus was in all probability born in Smyrna (today, Izmir in Turkey) in about 135-140, where in his youth, he attended the school of Bishop Polycarp, a disciple in his turn of the Apostle John.
We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but his move must have coincided with the first development of the Christian community in Lyons: here, in 177, we find Irenaeus listed in the college of presbyters. In that very year, he was sent to Rome bearing a letter from the community in Lyons to Pope Eleutherius. His mission to Rome saved Irenaeus from the persecution of Marcus Aurelius which took a toll of at least 48 martyrs, including the 90-year old Bishop Pontinus of Lyons, who died from ill-treatment in prison. Thus, on his return Irenaeus was appointed Bishop of the city. The new Pastor devoted himself without reserve to his episcopal ministry which ended in about 202-203, perhaps with martyrdom.
Irenaeus was first and foremost a man of faith and a Pastor. Like a good Pastor, he had a good sense of proportion, of the riches of doctrine and missionary enthusiasm. As a writer, he pursued a twofold aim: to defend true doctrine from the attacks of heretics, and to explain the truth of the faith clearly.
His two extant works - the five books of "Adversus Haereses. The Detection and Overthrow of the False Gnosis" and "Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching" (which can also be called the oldest "catechism of Christian doctrine") - exactly corresponded with these aims.
In short, Irenaeus can be defined as the champion in the fight against heresies. The second-century Church was threatened by the so-called Gnosis, a doctrine which affirmed that the faith taught in the Church was merely a symbolism for the simple who were unable to grasp difficult concepts; instead, the initiates, the intellectuals - Gnostics, they were called - claimed to understand what was behind these symbols and thus formed an elitist and intellectualist Christianity.
Obviously, this intellectual Christianity became increasingly fragmented, splitting into different currents with ideas that were often bizarre and extravagant, yet attractive to many. One element these different currents had in common was "dualism": they denied faith in the one God and Father of all, Creator and Saviour of man and of the world. To explain evil in the world, they affirmed the existence, besides the Good God, of a negative principle. This negative principle was supposed to have produced material things, matter.
Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of creation, Irenaeus refuted the Gnostic dualism and pessimism which debased corporeal realities. He decisively claimed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the flesh no less than of the spirit.
But his work went far beyond the confutation of heresy: in fact, one can say that he emerges as the first great Church theologian who created systematic theology; he himself speaks of the system of theology, that is, of the internal coherence of all faith.
At the heart of his doctrine is the question of the "rule of faith" and its transmission. For Irenaeus, the "rule of faith" coincided in practice with the Apostles' Creed, which gives us the key for interpreting the Gospel, for interpreting the Creed in light of the Gospel. The Creed, which is a sort of Gospel synthesis, helps us understand what it means and how we should read the Gospel itself.
In fact, the Gospel preached by Irenaeus is the one he was taught by Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and Polycarp's Gospel dates back to the Apostle John, whose disciple Polycarp was.
The true teaching, therefore, is not that invented by intellectuals which goes beyond the Church's simple faith. The true Gospel is the one imparted by the Bishops who received it in an uninterrupted line from the Apostles. They taught nothing except this simple faith, which is also the true depth of God's revelation.
Thus, Irenaeus tells us, there is no secret doctrine concealed in the Church's common Creed. There is no superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly confessed by the Church is the common faith of all. This faith alone is apostolic, it is handed down from the Apostles, that is, from Jesus and from God.
In adhering to this faith, publicly transmitted by the Apostles to their successors, Christians must observe what their Bishops say and must give special consideration to the teaching of the Church of Rome, pre-eminent and very ancient. It is because of her antiquity that this Church has the greatest apostolicity; in fact, she originated in Peter and Paul, pillars of the Apostolic College. All Churches must agree with the Church of Rome, recognizing in her the measure of the true Apostolic Tradition, the Church's one common faith.
With these arguments, summed up very briefly here, Irenaeus refuted the claims of these Gnostics, these intellectuals, from the start. First of all, they possessed no truth superior to that of the ordinary faith, because what they said was not of apostolic origin, it was invented by them. Secondly, truth and salvation are not the privilege or monopoly of the few, but are available to all through the preaching of the Successors of the Apostles, especially of the Bishop of Rome. In particular - once again disputing the "secret" character of the Gnostic tradition and noting its multiple and contradictory results - Irenaeus was concerned to describe the genuine concept of the Apostolic Tradition which we can sum up here in three points.
a) Apostolic Tradition is "public", not private or secret. Irenaeus did not doubt that the content of the faith transmitted by the Church is that received from the Apostles and from Jesus, the Son of God. There is no other teaching than this. Therefore, for anyone who wishes to know true doctrine, it suffices to know "the Tradition passed down by the Apostles and the faith proclaimed to men": a tradition and faith that "have come down to us through the succession of Bishops" (Adversus Haereses, 3, 3, 3-4). Hence, the succession of Bishops, the personal principle, and Apostolic Tradition, the doctrinal principle, coincide.
b) Apostolic Tradition is "one". Indeed, whereas Gnosticism was divided into multiple sects, Church Tradition is one in its fundamental content, which - as we have seen - Irenaeus calls precisely regula fidei or veritatis: and thus, because it is one, it creates unity through the peoples, through the different cultures, through the different peoples; it is a common content like the truth, despite the diversity of languages and cultures. A very precious saying of St Irenaeus is found in his book Adversus Haereses: "The Church, though dispersed throughout the world... having received [this faith from the Apostles]... as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world" (1, 10, 1-2). Already at that time - we are in the year 200 - it was possible to perceive the Church's universality, her catholicity and the unifying power of the truth that unites these very different realities, from Germany, to Spain, to Italy, to Egypt, to Libya, in the common truth revealed to us by Christ.
c) Lastly, the Apostolic Tradition, as he says in the Greek language in which he wrote his book, is "pneumatic", in other words, spiritual, guided by the Holy Spirit: in Greek, the word for "spirit" is "pneuma". Indeed, it is not a question of a transmission entrusted to the ability of more or less learned people, but to God's Spirit who guarantees fidelity to the transmission of the faith. This is the "life" of the Church, what makes the Church ever young and fresh, fruitful with multiple charisms. For Irenaeus, Church and Spirit were inseparable: "This faith", we read again in the third book of Adversus Haereses, "which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also.... For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace" (3, 24, 1).
As can be seen, Irenaeus did not stop at defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always enlivened from within by the Holy Spirit, who makes it live anew, causes it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church. Adhering to her teaching, the Church should transmit the faith in such a way that it must be what it appears, that is, "public", "one", "pneumatic", "spiritual".
Starting with each one of these characteristics, a fruitful discernment can be made of the authentic transmission of the faith in the today of the Church. More generally, in Irenaeus' teaching, the dignity of man, body and soul, is firmly anchored in divine creation, in the image of Christ and in the Spirit's permanent work of sanctification. This doctrine is like a "high road" in order to discern together with all people of good will the object and boundaries of the dialogue of values, and to give an ever new impetus to the Church's missionary action, to the force of the truth which is the source of all true values in the world.
5. Clement of Alexandria
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Dear brothers and sisters, after the period of celebrations, let us return to our normal catecheses even if it is still visibly festive in the Square.
With the catecheses we are returning, as I said, to the series begun previously. We have already spoken of the Twelve Apostles, then of the disciples of the Apostles and now of the important figures in the newborn Church, the ancient Church.
At the last one, we spoke of St Irenaeus of Lyons; today, let us speak of Clement of Alexandria, a great theologian who was probably born in Athens at around the middle of the second century.
From Athens he inherited that marked interest in philosophy which was to make him one of the pioneers of the dialogue between faith and reason in the Christian tradition. While he was still young, he arrived in Alexandria, the "city-symbol" of that fertile junction between the different cultures that was a feature of the Hellenistic age.
He was a disciple of Pantaenus until he succeeded him as head of the catechetical school. Many sources testify that he was ordained a priest. During the persecution of 202-203, he fled from Alexandria, seeking refuge in Caesarea, Cappadocia, where he died in about 215.
Of his most important works three are extant: the Protrepticus, the Paedagogus and the Stromata. Although it does not seem that this was the author's original intention, it is a fact that these writings constitute a true trilogy, destined to effectively accompany the Christian's spiritual growth.
The Protrepticus, as the word itself suggests, is an "exhortation" addressed to those who are starting out and seek the path of faith. Better still, the Protrepticus coincides with a Person: the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who makes himself the exhorter of men and women so that they will set out towards the Truth with determination.
Jesus Christ himself becomes the Paedagogus, that is, the "tutor" of those who, by virtue of Baptism, have henceforth become children of God.
Lastly, Jesus Christ himself is also the Didascalos, the "Master" who presents the most profound teachings. These are gathered in Clement's third work, the Stromata, a Greek term which means "tapestries": indeed, they are a random composition of different topics, direct fruits of Clement's customary teaching.
Overall, Clement's catecheses accompanied the catechumens and the baptized step by step on their way, so that with the two "wings" of faith and reason they might reach intimate knowledge of the Truth which is Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Only this knowledge of the Person who is truth is the "true gnosis, a Greek term which means "knowledge", "understanding". It is the edifice built by reason under the impetus of a supernatural principle.
Faith itself builds true philosophy, that is, true conversion on the journey to take through life. Hence, authentic "gnosis" is a development of faith inspired by Jesus Christ in the soul united with him. Clement then distinguishes two steps in Christian life.
The first step: believing Christians who live the faith in an ordinary way, yet are always open to the horizons of holiness. Then the second step: "gnostics", that is, those who lead a life of spiritual perfection.
In any case, Christians must start from the common basis of faith through a process of seeking; they must allow themselves to be guided by Christ and thus attain knowledge of the Truth and of truth that forms the content of faith.
This knowledge, Clement says, becomes a living reality in the soul: it is not only a theory, it is a life force, a transforming union of love. Knowledge of Christ is not only thought, but is love which opens the eyes, transforms the person and creates communion with the Logos, with the Divine Word who is truth and life. In this communion, which is perfect knowledge and love, the perfect Christian attains contemplation, unification with God.
Finally, Clement espouses the doctrine which claims that man's ultimate end is to liken himself to God. We were created in the image and likeness of God, but this is also a challenge, a journey: indeed, life's purpose, its ultimate destination, is truly to become similar to God. This is possible through the co-naturality with him which man received at the moment of creation, which is why, already in himself - already in himself - he is an image of God. This co-naturality makes it possible to know the divine realities to which man adheres, first of all out of faith, and through a lived faith the practice of virtue can grow until one contemplates God.
On the path to perfection, Clement thus attaches as much importance to the moral requisite as he gives to the intellectual. The two go hand in hand, for it is impossible to know without living and impossible to live without knowing.
Becoming likened to God and contemplating him cannot be attained with purely rational knowledge: to this end, a life in accordance with the Logos is necessary, a life in accordance with truth. Consequently, good works must accompany intellectual knowledge just as the shadow follows the body.
Two virtues above all embellish the soul of the "true gnostic". The first is freedom from the passions (apátheia); the other is love, the true passion that assures intimate union with God. Love gives perfect peace and enables "the true gnostic" to face the greatest sacrifices, even the supreme sacrifice in following Christ, and makes him climb from step to step to the peak of virtue.
Thus, the ethical ideal of ancient philosophy, that is, liberation from the passions, is defined by Clement and conjugated with love, in the ceaseless process of making oneself similar to God.
In this way the Alexandrian creates the second important occasion for dialogue between the Christian proclamation and Greek philosophy.
We know that St Paul, at the Aeropagus in Athens where Clement was born, had made the first attempt at dialogue with Greek philosophy - and by and large had failed - but they said to him: "We will hear you again".
Clement now takes up this dialogue and ennobles it to the maximum in the Greek philosophical tradition.
As my venerable Predecessor John Paul II wrote in his Encyclical Fides et Ratio, Clement of Alexandria understood philosophy "as instruction which prepared for Christian faith" (n. 38). And in fact, Clement reached the point of maintaining that God gave philosophy to the Greeks "as their own Testament" (Strom. 6, 8, 67, 1).
For him, the Greek philosophical tradition, almost like the Law for the Jews, was a sphere of "revelation"; they were two streams which flowed ultimately to the Logos himself.
Thus, Clement continued to mark out with determination the path of those who desire "to account" for their own faith in Jesus Christ. He can serve as an example to Christians, catechists and theologians of our time, whom, in the same Encyclical, John Paul II urged "to recover and express to the full the metaphysical dimension of faith in order to enter into a demanding critical dialogue with both contemporary philosophical thought and with the philosophical tradition in all its aspects".
Let us conclude by making our own a few words from the famous "prayer to Christ the Logos" with which Clement concludes his Paedagogus. He implores: "Be gracious... to us your children.... Grant us that we may live in your peace, be transferred to your city, sail over the billows of sin without capsizing, be gently wafted by your Holy Spirit, by ineffable Wisdom, by night and day to the perfect day giving thanks and praise to the one Father, [...] to the Son, Instructor and Teacher, with the Holy Spirit. Amen!" (Paed. 3, 12, 101).