How St. Irenaeus Helped the Pope and Bishops in the Early Church

How did St. Irenaeus assist the papacy and the episcopacy in the early days of the Church? Primarily by making a rational defense of the truth of the faith.

Lucien Bégule (1848–1935), “St. Irenaeus,” in the Church of St. Irenaeus in Lyon, France.
Lucien Bégule (1848–1935), “St. Irenaeus,” in the Church of St. Irenaeus in Lyon, France. (photo: Register Files)

I had a blessing in November when the bishops of New York State were on their Ad Limina Apostolorum — I was given the opportunity to meet the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

As a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn in New York, and as the Academic Dean of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, I was invited to accompany the many bishops in New York State when they met with the Pope. Even though I had been serving in Rome even before Francis became pope, this was the very first time I had actually met him. As a priest studying for my doctorate in sacred theology, I was present, along with thousands of others in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, March 13, 2013 — the evening when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected by the College of Cardinals in their conclave. Since that time, I have had the opportunity as a priest living and working in Rome to concelebrate Holy Mass with the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica at these huge Masses. The last of which I had concelebrated was of one of my favorite saints, St. John Henry Newman (someone whom I pray will be named in the future as a Doctor of the Church). Yet, this past November was the first time I actually met the Pope.

As I greeted the Pope, the realization hit me that Francis is the successor to St. Peter, the very first pope — the one whom the Lord Jesus had named the Rock, the “Petrus,” on which he would build his Church. Although it was a very different experience from meeting Pope St. John Paul II — I had served Mass for him in 1996 and then met him at an audience the day before my ordination to the diaconate in 1997 — these were, to be honest, almost mystical experiences for me! It was a beautiful confirmation of the reality of apostolic succession. Peter’s life and ministry continues in the papacy today. There is a living connection from Peter, Linus, Cletus and Clement in the early Church to our contemporary popes, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a bishop and martyr of the Church — someone whom some of the current bishops of the Church, including some from our own Episcopal conference in the United States of America, have suggested that should be considered a Doctor of Church — had a great deal to say about Apostolic Succession.

As one could imagine, the Church was growing and expanding in its identity in her early days. Following the death of the last Apostle, St. John, it was the special task of the post-apostolic Fathers of the Church — men like Justin the Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons — to keep the faith alive. Irenaeus, as I had mentioned in a previous article, had been, by most accounts, a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was one of the followers of St. John the Evangelist. Thus, Irenaeus would have had a special connection, through Polycarp, to John, the Beloved Disciple — and thus, to the other Apostles, and to the first pope, Peter.

How did St. Irenaeus assist the papacy and the episcopacy in the early days of the Church? Primarily by being available to make a rational defense of the truth of the faith. He focuses on Tradition, a concept which is sadly misunderstood today. Here, listen to Irenaeus’ attack on the heretic Gnostics, who claimed “secret knowledge” of God:

Thus the tradition of the apostles, manifest in the whole world, is present in every church to be perceived by all who wish to see the truth. We can enumerate those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches as their successors even to our time, men who taught or knew nothing of the sort that they madly imagine. If however the apostles had known secret mysteries that they would have taught secretly to the “perfect,” unknown to the others, they would have transmitted them especially to those to whom they entrusted the churches. For they wanted those whom they left as successors, and to whom they transmitted their own positions of teaching, to be perfect and blameless (1 Tim. 3:2) in very respect. If these men acted rightly it would be a great benefit, while if they failed it would be the greatest calamity. (Against the Heresies Lib. 3, cap. 3,2 as found in Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, The Early Church Fathers, London: Routledge, 1997, 124])

Describing the rightful succession of the Apostles, Irenaeus writes:

We point out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that Church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition. (Against the Heretics, 3:3:2)

Going further, in his battle with the heretics, St. Irenaeus takes his readers through the first popes, leading us to some of the theological difficulties that the Church of his age was facing. Describing Pope St. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, he states:

Those who wish can learn that the God proclaimed by the churches is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and can understand the apostolic tradition by this letter, older than those who now teach falsely that there is another god above the Demiurge and Creator of all that exists…with the same sequence and doctrine the tradition from the apostles in the church, and the preaching of truth, has come down to us.

This is a complete proof that the life-giving faith is one and the same, preserved and transmitted in truth in the church from the apostles up till now. (Against the Heresies Lib. 3, cap. 3,3 as found in Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, The Early Church Fathers, London: Routledge, 1997, 164])

One of the main reasons that St. Irenaeus was able to refute the Gnostics is due to their lack of tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states (83):

The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. the first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium.

A lack of an understanding of Tradition was a problem then in the early Church and it is a problem still today.

In my next contribution, I will conclude my series of St. Irenaeus, a possible Doctor of the Church, with an examination of Gnosticism (both then and now) and why Saint Irenaeus is needed as a teacher and an example now more than ever.

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