By Salvatore Cernuzio
Hailing from the East but an apostle in the West, a "pastor" and a "champion of the fight against heresies", as Benedict XVI called him, St. Irenaeus of Lyon will soon be declared a Doctor of the Church with the title “Doctor unitatis”, meaning doctor of unity. The announcement was made personally by Pope Francis on Thursday morning, in a brief passage of his address to members of the St. Irenaeus Orthodox-Catholic Joint Working Group. "I will willingly declare your patron a Doctor of the Church," he said, describing him as a figure of primary importance in the history of the Church and as "a great spiritual and theological bridge between Eastern and Western Christians."
“His name, Irenaeus, contains the word ‘peace," the Pope stressed, recalling its Greek root Ειρηναίος (Eirenaios), which means "peaceful," "peacemaker," "seraphic." It indicates someone who strives to bring and operate peace. The exact mission of the saint's life.
An evangelizer of the barbarians fighting Gnosticism
A native of Asia, probably born in Smyrna and who set foot in Gaul in 177, Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, thus indirectly, of the apostle John. He was the first Christian theologian to attempt an elaboration of a global synthesis of primitive Christianity. He spoke Greek, but in order to evangelize Celtic and Germanic peoples he learned the languages of the peoples who were considered barbarians. He conducted his work at a time of harsh persecution and in a historical period marked by two cultural events of great importance: the rise of Gnosticism in Christianity - the first form of heresy with a good doctrinal structure, and able to fascinate many educated Christians - and the spread in the pagan world of Neoplatonism, a wide-ranging philosophy that had many affinities with Christianity.
Defender of the doctrine
Irenaeus strived to give a firm response in order to highlight the errors contained in Gnosticism, a doctrine that stated that the faith taught by the Church was mere symbolism for the simple, unable to understand complexities, while the intellectuals who could understand what lay behind the symbols, would have formed an elitist, intellectualist Christianity. The pastor of Lyon, however, opened a window of dialogue with Neoplatonism and accepted some general principles, developing them personally. Of his writings, two works remain: the five books entitled "Against Heresies" and “The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching," also known as the oldest catechism of Christian doctrine.
Benedict XVI's catechesis in 2007
Through his writings, he pursued a twofold purpose: "To defend true doctrine from the assaults of heretics and to expound with clarity the truths of the faith," as Pope Benedict XVI had to say, as he dedicated an entire catechesis to this "eminent personality" during his general audience on March 28, 2007. "Irenaeus is above all a man of faith and a Pastor," the current Pope emeritus said on that occasion. " Like a good Pastor, he had a good sense of proportion, a wealth of doctrine, and missionary enthusiasm… Irenaeus can be defined as the champion in the fight against heresies." "Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of creation," he “refuted the Gnostic dualism and pessimism which debased corporeal realities. He decisively claimed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the flesh no less than of the spirit.”
But Irenaeus' work goes far beyond the refutation of heresy: " in fact, one can say that he emerges as the first great Church theologian who created systematic theology; he himself speaks of the system of theology, that is, of the internal coherence of all faith,” Pope Benedict further recalled. “At the heart of his doctrine is the question of the "rule of faith" and its transmission. For Irenaeus, the "rule of faith" coincided in practice with the Apostles' Creed, which gives us the key for interpreting the Gospel.” Irenaeus brought the Gospel, received in an unbroken chain from the Apostles, who taught nothing but “a simple faith.” Always disputing the "secret" character of the Gnostic tradition and noting its multiple and contradictory results, Irenaeus - Joseph Ratzinger said - took care to illustrate "the genuine concept of Apostolic Tradition" which is "public", "one" and "pneumatic", that is, guided by the Holy Spirit "who makes it alive and makes it be rightly understood by the Church".