Saint Irenaeus, the “Doctor of Unity”, helps us to breathe as Christians with both lungs

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A few years ago, when I was a student priest in Rome, a classmate and I decided to take a few days away from the Eternal City. We chose to go to France and visit some of the holy places in that country.

While we weren’t expecting to go through Lyon, our route inadvertently took us through the ancient city. For two theology students, the city immediately cried out the name “Irenaeus” and recalled the saint’s rich contribution to the Christian intellectual and spiritual tradition.

In our zeal, we scoured the city looking for the resting place of the saint’s body so we could offer some prayers and ask for his intercession. In the various churches of Lyon, it was astonishing that one person after another – not only did not know where Irenaeus was buried – but did not even know who he was. It was Lyons.

It’s understandable, if unfortunate, that many Christians don’t know about this first father of our faith, but for the people of Lyon – the saint’s own city – not knowing who he was is simply unsettling. It would be equally surprising if someone working in a church in Krakow did not know who John Paul II is.

The experience raises some questions. Should we know who Saint Irenaeus is? Does it have anything to contribute to our understanding and discipleship in our world today?

To these two questions, Pope Francis answers with a strong and firm “yes”. Last week, the Pope took the unexpected step of appointing the first Doctor of the Church. By giving the Church only its 37and Doctor, Pope Francis affirms – with the highest title that can be bestowed on a person – that Irenaeus must be known to believers today and that he has something essential to teach us.

Who was Irenaeus? What are its lessons for us today?

The saint was born in Smyrna (in modern Turkey) around 125 AD. He was raised in a city in a Christian home, which was rare in those days. He grew in his belief and love for Jesus Christ through the preaching of Saint Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John. The faith of Irenaeus was therefore in the primitive apostolic tradition and very close to the public ministry of the Lord Jesus.

The saint’s love for the Lord led him to ordination and he was eventually sent to Lyon as the second bishop, succeeding the martyr Pothinus. The need for a bishop in France at this early stage in the life of the Church indicates its tremendous growth and expansion. And so, while the saint was a great teacher of the faith, he was also a shepherd amidst the struggles and difficulties of the Church in the trenches.

In terms of his teaching, Irenaeus vigorously defends the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and his identity as true God and true man. Such a belief was shared by believers throughout the Church, both in the culturally diverse East and West. While later there will be schisms and divisions, here Irenaeus shows himself master of the two “lungs” of the universal Church.

The saint was adamant in his instruction that the gospel was for every man and woman. There were no elites or esoteric groups of people within the human family. The gospel was given through the incarnation of the Son of God. It came to us from human experience and was therefore open and offered to all. In this way, Irenaeus became a voice for the fairness of God and the all-encompassing nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Among some of Irenaeus’ most notable contributions, which can still help us today, were his immense love for the Holy Scriptures, the apostolic tradition, and the teachings of the shepherds of the Church. The saint named the “Old” and “New” Testaments, as well as gave us one of the first lists of the books of the New Testament. He provides us with one of the first lists of the succession of bishops of Rome, which he considered to be the cement of the apostolic tradition. And he revered the other bishops of his time, who were faithful and fierce in their preaching, with many of them – like Irenaeus himself – dying martyrs.

In all these ways, Irenaeus is a help to us today. He was rightly given the designation “Doctor of Unity” because his example and intercession can help us see what we share in common, what sources of unity have been given to us and how we are called to live as disciples of the Man-God, Jesus Christ.

(Incidentally, for anyone interested, the majority of Irenaeus’ body was sacrileged and dumped in the Lyons river during the French Revolution.)

Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby

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