I remember years ago doing a little research to find out if my birthday was also the feast day of a saint. When I found the answer, I said to myself in disappointment: “Who is St. Irenaeus?” As you read this, you might be saying the same thing. But these days St. Irenaeus has been making a big comeback. Just a couple of weeks ago, Pope Francis announced his intention to declare this 2nd century martyr a Doctor of the Church. The word “doctor” in this case comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” and these saints are recognized as stand-outs for their ability to communicate and explain the teachings of the Church. Only 36 other saints have this title, including big ones like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Catherine of Siena.
St. Irenaeus was from modern-day Turkey, where he was born in 130 A.D. He learned the faith from St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. The combination of his brilliance and his proximity to one of the Twelve Apostles made Irenaeus someone from whom many Church leaders sought counsel on the difficult issues of the time. As the Bishop of Lyon, France, St. Irenaeus played a role in helping to ease tensions between Christians in the eastern, Greek-speaking world (his native place) and those in the western, Latin-speaking world (including the place where he served as bishop). Most importantly, he was a fierce defender of true Church teaching against early distortions of the Faith, particularly against a heresy called Gnosticism. Gnostics had an elitist approach to the Christian faith, arguing that the Church’s public teachings were just symbolic, meant for simple, uneducated, “average” people who could not grasp the special, secret insights available only to Gnostic Christians. Gnostics also tended to believe in “dualism,” which denied that God is Creator and Redeemer of all things. Instead, they saw everything as a conflict between the “good” spiritual realm and the “evil” material realm.
In his most important work, entitled: Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus affirms basic Church teachings such as the two natures of Christ Jesus (human & divine), as well as the Most Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Crucially, he demonstrates that these teachings are consistent with the Sacred Scriptures and have been the constant teachings of the Church since the time of the Apostles. As such, they are part of Apostolic Tradition, the handing down of authentic Church teaching from Christ, to the Apostles, and to their successors the bishops in communion with the Pope. Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Irenaeus tells us there is no secret doctrine… there is no superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly confessed by the Church is the common faith of all.” All members of the Church, therefore, have access to the authentic teachings of the Church, which the Holy Spirit has preserved over the ages through Apostolic Tradition, and we are all called to live in accord with them.
Pope Francis has decided that St. Irenaeus will be called the “Doctor of Unity,” since he did so much to unite Christians by working to reconcile East and West during his life. But St. Irenaeus also worked for unity in the Church by helping us to understand how Apostolic Tradition guarantees that we are truly united in the Faith we share with Christian believers from the earliest days of the Church.