Mike Aquilina on All Saints’ Day: The Church Fathers Show Us That Old Spiritual Problems Repeat Themselves Today
Scholar explains relevance of his new ‘Fathers of the Faith’ series: ‘The stories are fascinating. They help us to live our lives better today.’
Mike Aquilina wrote one book on the Fathers of the Church that proved so popular, he began a Fathers of the Faith series recounting the individual stories of the Church Fathers. He has made their stories page-turners, reading like an exciting novel while at the same time imparting the roots of the faith and their importance.
As the author of more than 50 books, Aquilina has also co-hosted 11 series airing on the Eternal Word Television Network and regularly appears as a popular speaker on Catholic history, doctrine and devotion. For two decades, he has been associated with Scott Hahn and the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where he currently serves as executive vice president.
Why did you decide to write these Fathers of the Faith books?
There’s a great deal of curiosity about the Church Fathers. It surprised me when I learned it. In the 1990s, I wrote a book called The Fathers of the Church. I expected it to fulfill a certain niche, but it sold a lot better than I or my publisher expected. And since then, I’ve been writing books about the Fathers of the Church. I have probably written more than 50. And the only way you write that many is if people are reading them. There is a demonstrated interest in the Fathers among Catholics — and for a lot of reasons.
I think it’s the same impulse in people who spend a lot of time and money on exploring their genealogy. They want to know their roots. They want to know what is it that made them who they are. So people have a lot of interest in the Fathers. What I wanted to do with these books is satisfy that need to give people enough information about each of the Fathers, one by one.
What makes your approach different than books already written on the Fathers?
You can buy a scholarly biography of Chrysostom, and you’re going to sit through several pages at the beginning of a debate about the year of his birth because we’re not sure of the exact year. Now, most people don’t want that level of detail. They don’t care about the exact year of his birthday; they want to get to know the man. That’s what I tried to do in these books — tell the stories from the lives of the Fathers, and the stories are fascinating. They’re very human. They show the complete range of human emotion, and they help us to live our lives better today.
The Fathers belong to us. They belong to everyone. Some people think of them as most appropriately studied in universities, in scholarly settings by academics, but the Fathers are saints, they belong to the Church, and we should get to know them.
We don’t call them “Fathers” for nothing. They’re supposed to serve that role in our lives. A father is someone who goes before us and makes us who we are. And just as our biological or adoptive father, we have done this in our lives. So have the Fathers of the Church. They’ve gone before us. And they make us who we are as Christians. They really did cooperate with God to fashion the Christian world that we live in.
Why is it important that we learn about these Fathers of the Church? Please share a connection.
We began with St. Irenaeus and St. Augustine. We chose them for different reasons. Irenaeus we chose because he appears very early in history, and he had so many interesting social connections. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John the Apostle. So his connection to the apostles is very close. And he is the one who preserved for us many of the stories about Polycarp and about John. So Irenaeus is also a witness to the core doctrines of the Church from very early in Christian history.
He’s living in the 100s, and he is witnessing to the divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ, witnessing to the fourfold Gospel. He’s witnessing to the authority of the papacy. He’s witnessing to Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. All of these things are evident from his works at a very early date. And again, this is a man who received the faith from Polycarp, who received it from John the Apostle. He becomes an important witness to the faith of the early Christians. So he was chosen for that reason.
Augustine was chosen because he’s the most cited saint in history. He’s the author, outside the scriptural authors, who appears most often in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine is important for his teaching, but he’s also a very warm figure. He was a friend to many, and he is a voice that speaks across centuries when people read his memoir, the Confessions. They feel like they know him; they feel like he’s a friend of theirs. So we chose each of these figures for different reasons.
Some might ask, how do Athanasius and Chrysostom tie in to today?
Human nature hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. They were dealing with the same spiritual problems that we’re dealing with today. They’re dealing with the seven deadly sins, with the effects of pride on life in this world and life in the Church. They’re dealing with doctrinal controversies that aren’t all that different from what we're dealing with today. And in these books we see that they were willing to suffer for the right doctrine. They were ready to suffer the consequences of their fidelity.
Athanasius, for example, stood against the world. That’s how one emperor taunted him: Athanasius against the world. And he was willing to do that. He was willing to face down the world, if that’s what it meant, to tell the truth about Jesus Christ. And we have to learn from that. We have to be willing to do the same, to face down seemingly insurmountable opposition in order to stand up for Jesus Christ.
Even with your voluminous knowledge of the Fathers of the Church, did you find anything surprising as you worked on the books on Athanasius and John Chrysostom? Or that would even surprise readers? That can go for all the series, too.
I did try to do my research in some sources that are out of the ordinary, and I did try to keep in mind the particular interests of people living in our time. So, yes, the stories are chosen for their appeal to people today, so that people can find common ground for understanding these people who lived long ago in a culture far away and a culture that was far different from ours.
With your approach in finding that common element, will readers pick up something they can and should put into practice using Athanasius and Chrysostom as models?
Sure. What we have here are two saints who lived in challenging times. It would have been easy just to go with the flow in their times in the fourth century and in the fifth century — in the case of Athanasius, to find a compromise with the Aryans, to fudge the language so that people were not required to affirm the true Godhead of Jesus Christ. But Athanasius couldn’t stand for that because he knew that without the right doctrine, everything else fell apart. Salvation no longer made sense.
You’ll find something similar in the life of John Chrysostom: He spoke the truth to power, as we say today, and he suffered the consequences. I think, increasingly, we’re going to find ourselves in these circumstances where we have to speak the truth in a world that’s hostile to it. And we may have to suffer the consequences. It’s good for us to have models like Athanasius and Chrysostom before us to know that this can be done. This must be done. And that this is a way to true glory.
Both new books by Mike Aquilina are available through EWTN Religious Catalogue, EWTNRC.com or (800) 854-6316