5 Reasons to Read and Love the Fathers of the Church

The Church Fathers were great pastors who taught us how to be friends of God

Gerard Seghers (1591-1651), “The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Saint Augustine of Hippo”
Gerard Seghers (1591-1651), “The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Saint Augustine of Hippo” (photo: Public Domain)

In my last article, I urged us to come to a greater appreciation of the Fathers of the Church and I suggested some fine books on how to read and understand these great friends of God from the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic age.

You might recall that I suggested three books that were very helpful to me when I wanted to learn about the Fathers of the Church. These books were:

  • Father Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers: Revised Edition (Paulist Press, 2012)
  • Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998),
  • and, for sentimental reasons, if you can get your hands on an older book, The Fathers Without Theology: The Lives and Legends of The Early Church Fathers by Marjorie Strachey.

These are books on who the Fathers were and offer a good summary of their theology. However, I would also suggest, naturally enough, that, if you are interested in the Fathers, you actually read the Fathers themselves! For those of us who pray the Liturgy of the Hours — and all of us can, not just clerics and religious, for it is the “official prayer book” of the Church — we are blessed to have the second reading in the Office of Readings, which can also be called Matins. More often than not, the second reading is taken from a Patristic source.

If you would like a good anthology to read from the Fathers, try The Early Christian Fathers: a Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, edited and translated by Henry Bettenson (Oxford University Press, 1969) and Bettenson’s The Later Christian Fathers: a Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Cyril of Jerusalem to St. Leo the Great (Oxford University Press, 1973). Read the Fathers, not just about them!

So, with no further ado and in no particular order, I would like to present 10 reasons (five this week and five next week) why I believe that all of us should read the Fathers of the Church:

1. The Fathers were mostly pastors, not academics. Remember the old definition of religion: “Man’s response to God as God reveals himself to man?” The Fathers were living their Christian lives in response, solidly based on the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith, that they were experiencing in the Church and in the culture of their day. Their writings were not coming from a tenured professorship — they were trying to serve the flock with whom God had blessed them. Think of Augustine and Cyprian. (You’ll see plenty of references to them in my list, as they are my two favorite patristic writers.)

2. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor Communis, is, at his essence, not so much a philosopher, but a brilliant commentator on not only Sacred Scripture, but also the Sacred Tradition. Stephen Beale, in his incredible article in the National Catholic Register, “Which Church Fathers Most Influenced St. Thomas Aquinas?” breaks it all down for us so clearly: Saint Augustine of Hippo is quoted by Saint Thomas in the Summa Theologiae 3,156 times! Here’s the rest of the breakdown from Mr. Beale:

  1. Gregory the Great — 761  
  2. Dionysius —607
  3. Jerome —377
  4. Damascene —367
  5. John Chrysostom —309
  6. Ambrose —284  
  7. Isidore —162  
  8. Origen —84
  9. Basil —56
  10. Gregory of Nyssa —53
  11. Athanasius —45
  12. Cyril —28

If the greatest mind that the Catholic Church and the Western world has ever produced is so devoted to the Fathers, why aren’t we when we do theology?

3. The Fathers will teach us to love the Church. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Lumen Gentium) offered as its primary image for the Church the People of God. Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Mystici Corporis, offers us the image of the Church as the Body of Christ. The Pope and the Fathers of the Council did not invent these images. They come not only from Sacred Scripture, but also from the Fathers. In one of the passages that I consider to be among the most beautiful selection in the Patristic corpus, “On the Unity of the Church,” St. Cyprian of Carthage writes: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” The Church is our Mother and, like the devotion we should strive to exhibit toward Mary, the Mother of the Church, we should love and defend our mother, the Church.

4. The Fathers teach us what it means to be human, truly human. I offer again the beautiful words of St. Cyprian describing the sinful culture of his day, of which he was certainly part of before his conversion and his baptism:

 I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, wavering hither and thither, tossed about on the foam of this boastful age, and uncertain of my wandering steps, knowing nothing of my real life, and remote from truth and light…but after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, had been infused into my reconciled heart…

We all know the great conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo, which he gloriously offers us in his Confessions (I highly recommend the Ignatius Critical Edition of the Confessions [2012], edited Jesuit Father David Meconi’s version, translated by Benedictine Sister Maria Boulding). But all of the Fathers lived in the world, the fallen world, and they came to the conclusion, because they fell in love with Christ in his Church, that they had to convert to the truth, goodness, beauty, love and knowledge that is Christ. They teach us to put to death the old man of sin and to embrace the new man in Christ. Remember the words of St. Irenaeus: “Gloria Dei est vivens homo!

5. The Fathers teach us to be Friends of God (and with each other). The Fathers of the Church were truly men striving for holiness. Being truly alive, as St. Irenaeus mentioned, means more than “just living life to the full.” It’s not about self-fulfillment. It’s about living the life of Christ. As Christ, fully man, fully God, was capable of beautiful friendships, so too were the Fathers. Read the words of St. Gregory Nazianzen about his dear friend, St. Basil.

Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

He goes on further to write:

We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.

These two men had a friendship which was a gift from God, a gift that spurred them onward to better: better men, better Christians. Some search their entire life for such a friendship, one that makes the other a better person. Reading the Fathers can teach us to be better friends of God and one another.

These are just five quick things we can learn from the Fathers. In the next article, I’d like to conclude this series on why we should embrace in our prayer and studies with the Fathers of the Church with five more great things we can learn from the writings and the lives of the Fathers of the Church.

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