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Why the Fathers of the Church are Important

I recently read The Fathers of the Church 3rd Edition: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers by Mike Aquilina (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division. 2013). When I saw an ad for the book, I was drawn to it for two reasons. First, unity in the church is important to me. When I speak of “unity”, I include “continuity” over time. What the Church teaches today needs to be consistent with what it has always taught. Led by the Holy Spirit, Church teaching develops over the centuries but does not flip flop. For those who see radical change from the Second Vatican Council, properly understood the council was not about new developments. It was a returning to our roots. With this in mind, it is important to be aware of the what the church fathers taught.

Secondly, I like to watch stories of converts to our Catholic faith. When one hears the story of those whose conversion involves scholarly study, it often involves study of the Church Fathers. In it, they see that the Catholic Church did not go astray in its doctrine but rather is faithful to what the early church taught.

With this mind, Aquilina begins his introduction, “At the dawn of the age of the Fathers, Luke the Evangelist wrote of the first Christians: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32)” (17). Being part of the Catholic Church is not about doing our own thing, picking and choosing what to believe. As Aquilina continues, “As heirs to the Apostles, the leaders and teachers of the early Church – the Fathers of the Church – were intensely concerned with preserving the unity and integrity of the “company of those who believed”” (17). He describes the story of the Church fathers as “the story of a family, and how the Fathers of that family strove to keep their households together” (17).

So, who are the Church Fathers? Aquilina describes them, “The Fathers of the Church are a select group of early Christian teachers, about a hundred in numbers, depending on the list you consult” (17). (Later noting, “There is no canonical list of the Fathers, and the Church as no process for naming them” (23).) To determine who qualifies as a Father of the Church, Aquilina relies on the criteria of “St. Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century:
1. Sound doctrine
2. Holiness of life
3. Church approval
4. Antiquity” (18)

This era of the Church Fathers is also known as the Patristic Era and “stretched from the middle of the first century to the middle of the eighth” (Aquilina 18). As understanding of our faith developed, so did many heresies. Thus, Aquilina writes, “As the generations passed, it became increasingly important for a teacher to demonstrate his continuity with apostolic teaching” (19). I believe this remains true today. It is why I like to use quotes from the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church when I teach. In turn, Aquilina points out, “The Catechism invokes individual Fathers more than three hundred times, and the Fathers collectively many additional times” (52).

From this understanding of continuity, Aquilina writes of the Fathers, “we might expect them to be a fairly uniform group” (20). However, as he describes, “The Fathers lived in cultures as varied as the high Roman Empire and the first Muslim caliphates, in cosmopolitan cities and in barbarian backwaters, in times of war and in times of peace, through periods of persecution and, finally, through centuries of triumph” (20). There were of various personalities, various methodologies, and different occupations (21). Unity does not mean everyone is identical. We are unique individuals united in a faith given to us by God through the Holy Spirit.

To ensure continuity, the Fathers sought hard to rely heavily on the Bible (Aquilina, 28-29). Likewise, as Aquilina writes, “For all the Church Fathers, the Eucharist was the sacrament of Christian unity” (36). In receiving the Eucharist, we need to be in “communion” with our faith. From this desire for unity comes the centrality of the papacy. There are those who think the papacy is one of the places the Catholic Church went astray. If this were true, then the Catholic Church went astray very early. Aquilina writes, “One of the oldest surviving Christian texts, aside from the Bible, is St. Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians. There we see the Church of Rome intervening in a controversy in a faraway church in Greece. St. Clement speaks from a position of authority and does not hesitate to demand obedience” (37, cf. Aquilina, 50). (This letter dates from the end of the first century).

From the time of Christ on earth to 312 A.D when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in his “Edict of Milan”, the Church faced frequent persecution. Many people suffered martyrdom. One might think this would be a discouragement to anyone joining the Church. However, Aquilina writes, “Indeed, during the centuries when Christians were most severely persecuted, the Church grew by a steady 40 percent per decade” (39). Why? Because the witness of the martyrs showed to others how important the faith was to the Christians. One does not die for what one takes lightly. When little is asked of one, little is given (see Aquilina 40-41).

Beginning on page 42, Aquilina describes some the heresies faced by the Church Fathers. (To clarify what they faced, Aquilina writes “Apostasy is the renunciation of Christian faith. Heresy is the willful acceptance of incorrect doctrine. Schism is the attempt to preserve orthodoxy while breaking from union with the Church and the papacy” (43).)

In seeking continuity over time, central to what we are talking about is “Tradition”. As Aquilina writes, “The Fathers are witnesses to the Tradition, which predates them. They themselves are not the Tradition” (52). Tradition is something bigger than anyone of us. Tradition is rooted in the Bible and the teachings of Christ. Tradition flows forward led by the Holy Spirit, not by man’s personal desires.

From here, Aquilina goes on to spend some 250 more pages discussing the Church Fathers and providing excerpts from their writings. I am not going into all of that. I am not an expert in the Church Fathers. Besides, I don’t need to write all that. Aquilina has already written it. With that in mind, I just want to offer a short quote Aquilina provides from an excerpt of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s The Pure Blood of Christ. In this excerpt, St. Ignatius is asking for prayers that he “may not merely be called a Christian, but may really proved to be one” (66).

How seriously do you take your faith?

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

2 Comments

  1. Linda says:

    Thank you for thought provoking blog. I am thinking about how apostasy is enacted in todays world. Is it atheism, relativism, spirituality, secularism or just the picking and choosing of which Traditions to follow. Maybe it’s all of these?

  2. Fr. Jeff says:

    Thank you for your comment. Using Aquilina’s definition of apostasy as “Apostasy is the renunciation of Christian faith” (43), atheism, saying there is no god, would be apostasy for one who had believed in God but then changed to atheism. If one has always been an atheist, it would technically not be a “renunciation” of faith, but, of course, it would be a denial of Christianity. I would say the same about secularism.

    Relativism would seem must harder to categorize here. One could claim to be a relativist in the sense of not “forcing” their faith on others but still believing it themselves. However, relativism says there is no truth. Catholicism is all about truth, the Truth that God gives us. So, a relativist has rejected at least that part of Catholicism. I think the picking and choosing of parts of Christianity to believe would fall here too.

    For spirituality, I am not sure I have an immediate answer. A true and faithful Catholic is spiritual but not everyone who says they are spiritual has any belief in Jesus.

    Please feel free to answer further questions.

    Peace,

    Fr. Jeff

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