15 - 21 minutes readJune 28 – St Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr ~ Dom Prosper Gueranger

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June 28 – St Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr

Although the feast of Saint Leo the Second were sufficient in itself to complete this day’s teachings (since moved to the 3rd of July), the Church of Lyons presents likewise to the admiration of the whole world her own great Doctor, the valiant and pacific Irenæus, who, quitting the shores of brilliant Ionia, travelled as far as these Celtic coasts, here to shine as “the light of the West.” But whilst contemplating him today confirming with his blood the doctrine he had preached, let us hearken to his words bearing testimony to Holy Mother Church, words of world-wide celebrity, at once confounding hell and closing the mouth of heresy. May we not say, that it was in order to afford us instruction so appropriate for tomorrow’s festival that Eternal Wisdom made choice of this particular day for his martyr’s triumph? Let us hearken then to this zealous pupil of Polycarp and of the first disciples of the Apostles; let us hearken to him who for this very reason is considered to be the most authentic witness to the faith in all the Churches of the second century, all which Churches (these are his own words when Bishop of Lyons) bow down before Rome, as to their Mistress and Mother. “For,” he continues, “it behoves all the rest because of her superior principality, to agree with her: in her, do all the Faithful of whatsoever place preserve ever pure the faith once preached to them. Great and venerable above all others because of her antiquity, known to all, founded by Peter and Paul, the two most glorious of the apostles, her bishops are, by their succession, the channel whereby apostolic tradition is transmitted unto us in all its integrity: in such sort, that whosoever differs from her in his belief, by this fact alone stands confounded.”

The Rock on which the Church is built stood all unmoved at that early age, as now, against the efforts of false science. Yet not without peril was the attack then made by the gnostics, with that multiplex heresy of theirs and all its guileful plots put into strange concurrence by powers of evil otherwise the most opposed to the other. It would almost seem as though Christ had wished to prove the strength of the foundations he had laid, by thus permitting hell to direct against the Church a simultaneous assault of all the errors to which the world then was or ever would become a prey. Simon the magician, already ensnared by Satan in the nets of the occult sciences, was chosen by the prince of darkness as his lieutenant in the enterprise. Unmasked at Samaria by the Vicar of the Man-God, he had commenced against Simon Peter a jealous struggle that would by no means end with the tragic death of the father of heresies, but which in the following century was to be continued more desperately than ever, through disciples formed by him. Saturninus, Basilides, Valentine, all these did but apply the premises of the master, diversifying them according to the instincts bred at the time, by the then existing forms of corruption of mind and heart. A proceeding all the more avowed, inasmuch as the aim of Magus had been nothing less than the sealing of an alliance betwixt philosophies, religions, and aspirations the most contradictory. There was no aberration, from Persian dualism or Hindu idealism, to Jewish cabals or Greek polytheism, that did not mutually proffer the hand of friendship in this reserved sanctuary of the Gnosis; there, already were the heterodox conceptions of Arius and Eutyches being formulated; there, taking movement and life, in advance, were to be recognized in a strange pantheistic romance the wildest oddities of the hollow dreams of German metaphysics. God, an abyss, rolling from fall to fall, till at last reaching matter, there to become conscious of himself in human nature, and to return then, by annihilation, into eternal silence: this is the sum total of gnostic dogma, engendering, for its morality, a mixture of transcendent mysticism, and impure practices; for its political form, laying the basis of Communism and modern Nihilism.

Such a spectacle as this of the gnostic Babel, piling up its incoherent materials on the waters of pride and impure passions, was indeed well calculated to bring out, in bold relief, the admirable unity of the City of God, so rapidly advancing, though but in her commencement. St. Irenæus, chosen by God to oppose to the Gnosis arguments of his own powerful logic, and to re-establish, in opposition thereunto, the true sense of holy Scripture, excelled most of all, when, in face of a thousand sects bearing on their brow the visible mark of the father of discord and lies, he pointed to the Church maintaining as sacred, throughout the universe, the whole of tradition, just as received from the Apostles. Faith in the great truth that the world is wholly governed by the Holy Trinity Whose work it is, faith in the Mystery of justice and mercy, which, leaving the Angels in their fall, did yet raise up this flesh of ours, in Jesus, the Well-Beloved, the Son of Mary, our God, our Savior and our King: such was the deposit confided to earth by Peter and Paul, by the apostles and by their disciples. “The Church, therefore,” so argues Saint Irenæus with all his enthusiastic piety and learning, “the Church having received faith, guards the same with all diligence, making the whole world wherein she lives dispersed, to become but one single house: collected in unity, she believes with one soul, with one heart; with one voice she preaches, teaches, transmits doctrine, as having but one mouth. For, although there be in the world divers languages, that by no means prevents tradition remaining one in its sap. The Churches founded in Germany, or amidst the Iberians, or the Celts, believe not otherwise, teach not otherwise, than do the Churches of the East, of Egypt, of Lybia, or of those established in the center of the world. But even as the sun, God’s creature, is ever the same and remains one in the whole world; so, too, does the teaching of Truth shine resplendent, illumining every man who is willing to come to the knowledge of the Truth. Even though the chief men in the Churches be unequal in the art of speaking well, tradition is not thereby impaired: he who explains eloquently, cannot possibly give it increase; he who speaks with less abundance, cannot thereby diminish it.”

O sacred Unity, O precious Faith deposited like a source of eternal youthfulness in our hearts! they indeed know thee not, who turn themselves away from Holy Church! Afar from her, they must needs lose also Jesus and all his gifts. “For where the Church is, there likewise is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there likewise is the Church, there all grace. Woe to them who alienate themselves from her! they suck not in life from the nourishing breasts to which their Mother invites them, they slake not their thirst at the limpid fount of the Lord’s Body; but, afar from the rock of unity, they drink the muddy waters of cisterns dug in fetid slime where there is not a drop of the water of truth.” What will their vain science avail to sophists, with all their empty foolish formulæ? “Oh!” cries out the Bishop of Lyons elsewhere, in accents which seem to have been borrowed later on by the author of the Imitation, “Oh! how far better is it to be ignorant, or a man of little learning, and to draw nigh unto God by love! What use is there in knowing much, in passing off for having grasped much, if one be an enemy to his Lord? Wherefore, Paul doth thus exclaim: knowledge puffeth up, but charity builds up. Not that he reproved the true science of God; for if so he had condemned himself in the first place; but he saw that there were some who, exalting themselves under pretext of knowledge, knew not any longer how to love. Yea, verily; better were it to know naught at all, to be ignorant of the meaning of everything, and yet to believe in God and to be possessed of charity. Let us avoid vain puffing up which would make us fall away from love, the life of the soul; let Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified for us, be our only science.”

Rather than here bring forward the genius of the eminent controversialist of the second century, it is a pleasure to cite from his treatises such passages as give an insight into his great soul, and reveal traits of a sanctity so loving and so sweet. “When, at last, the Spouse cometh,” says he, speaking of those unfortunate men whom he would fain reclaim, “their science will not keep their lamp lighted, and they will find themselves excluded from the nuptial chamber.”

In numberless places in the midst of closely strung arguments, he who may be styled the grandson of the Beloved Disciple betrays his own heart. Whilst following, for instance, the track of Abraham, he shows the path that leads to the spouse: his mouth can then no longer cease to re-utter the name that fills his thoughts. We cannot but recognize in these touching words of his, the Apostle who had quitted country and home to advance the kingdom of God in the land of the Gauls: “Abraham did well to abandon his earthly relatives to follow the Word of God, to exile himself together with the Word, so as to live with Him. The Apostles did well too, in order to follow the Word of God, to quit their bark and their father. We, likewise, who have the same faith as Abraham, we do well carrying our cross as Isaac did the wood, to follow in his footsteps. In Abraham, man learned that it is possible to follow the Word of God, and thus were his steps made firm in this blessed way. The Word, on His part, nevertheless, disposed man for the divine mysteries, by figures throwing light on the future. Moses espoused an Ethiopian, who thus became a daughter of Israel: and by these nuptials of Moses, those of the Word were pointed out; for by this Ethiopian, was signified the Church that hath come forth from the gentiles; whilst awaiting the day wherein the Word Himself will come to wash away, with His own hands, the defilements of the daughter of Sion, at the Banquet of the Last Supper. For fitting it is, that the temple be pure in which the Bridegroom and Bride are to taste of the delights of the Spirit of God; and even as it beseemeth not the Bride to come forward herself to take a Spouse, but she must needs wait till she be sought out, so this flesh of ours cannot of itself rise to the majesty of the Throne Divine; but when the Spouse cometh, oh! then He will raise her up, and she will not so much possess Him, but will rather be possessed by Him. The Word made Flesh will assimilate her wholly to Himself in all fullness and will render her precious in the eyes of the Father, by reason of this her conformity to His visible Word. Then will the union with God in love be consummated. Divine union is life and light; it imparts the enjoyment of all the good things of God; it is eternal of its very nature, just as these good things themselves likewise are. Woe to those who withdraw themselves therefrom; their chastisement comes less from God than from themselves, and from the free choice whereby, turning from God, they have lost all the good things of God.”

The loss of faith being the most radical and the deepest of all causes of estrangement from God, it is not surprising to observe the horror which heresy inspired in those days, when union with God was the one treasure ambitioned by all conditions and ages of life. The name Irenæus signifies peace; and justifying this beautiful name, his condescending charity once led the Roman Pontiff himself to withhold the thunders he was on the point of hurling; the question at issue was one of no small importance,—it was the celebration of Easter. Nevertheless Irenæus himself relates with regard to his Master Polycarp, how when being asked by the heretic Marcion if he knew him, he replied, “I know thee to be the first-born of Satan.” He also gives us that fact concerning Saint John, who, when hearing that Cerinthus was in the same public edifice into which he had just entered, fled precipitately, for fear, as he said, that because of this enemy of Truth the walls of the building would crumble down upon them all: “so great,” remarks the Bishop of Lyons, “was the fear the apostles and their disciples had of communicating, even by word, with any one of those who altered Truth.” He who was styled by the companions of Saints Pothinus and Blandina, in their prison, the “zelator of the Testament of Christ,” was on this point, as on all others, the worthy heir of John and Polycarp. Far from becoming hardened thereby, his heart, like that of his venerable masters, drew from this purity of mind that limitless tenderness of which he gave proof in regard to those erring ones whom he hoped to win back. What could be more touching than the letter written by Irenæus to one of these unhappy men whom the mirage of novel doctrines had inveigled into the gulf of error: “O Florinus, this teaching is not that transmitted to us by the ancients, the disciples of the Apostles. I used to behold thee at the side of Polycarp; though shining at court thou didst none the less seek to be pleasing unto him. I was then but a child, yet the things that happened at that time are more vivid in my recollection than those of yesterday; for indeed childhood’s memories form, as it were, a part of the very soul; they grow with her. I could point the very spot where sat blessed Polycarp the while he conversed with us; I could describe exactly his bearing, his address, his manner of life, his every feature, and the discourses he made to the crowd. Thou needst must well remember how he used to tell us of his intercourse with John and the rest of those that had seen the Lord, and with what a faithful memory he repeated their words; what he had learnt from them respecting our Lord, his miracles, his doctrine, all these things Polycarp transmitted unto us, as having himself received them from the very men that had beheld with their eyes the Word of Life; now all of what he told us was conformable to the Scriptures. What a grace from God were these conversations of his! I used to listen so eagerly, noting everything down, not on parchment, but on my heart; and now, by the grace of God, I still love on it all. Hence, I can attest before God, if the blessed apostolic old man had heard discourses such as thine, he would have uttered a piercing cry, and would have stopped his ears, saying as was his wont: O God most good, to what sort of times hast thou reserved us! Then would he have got up quickly, and would have fled from that spot of blasphemy.”

It is full time to give the liturgical narrative of the history of this great Bishop and Martyr.

Irenæus, non longe ab urbe Smyrna in Asia proconsulari natus, jam inde a puero sese Polycarpo, Johannis Evangelistæ discipulo, eidemque episcopo Smyrn&aelog;orum, tradiderat in disciplinam. Hoc tam excellenti magistro, progressus in doctrina præceptisque christianæ religionis insignes fecit. Polycarpo in cœlum martyrii gloria sublato, etsi erat Irenæus in sacris litteris egregie versatus, quod tamen incredibili studio flagraret discendi quæ dogmata, depositi loco custodienda, cæteri accepissent quos Apostoli instituerant; horum quam potuit plures convenit, quæque ab iisdem audivit, memori mente tenuit, ea deinceps opportune adversus hæreses alluturus. Quas cum videret ingenti populi christiani damno latius in dies manare, diligenter copioseque refellere cogitarat. Irenæus was born in proconsular Asia, not far from the city of Smyrna. From his childhood he had entered the school of Polycarp, the disciple of St. John the Evangelist, and Bishop of Smyrna. Under so excellent a master, he made wonderful progress in the science of religion and in the practice of Christian virtue. He was inflamed with an unspeakable desire to learn the doctrines which had been received as a deposit by all the disciples of the Apostles; wherefore, although already a master in Sacred Letters when Polycarp was taken to heaven by a glorious martyrdom, he undertook to visit as many as ever he could of these ancients, retentively holding in his memory whatsoever they spoke unto him. Thus was he afterwards able to oppose these their words with great advantage against the heresies. For indeed, daily more and more did heresy spread, to the great detriment of the Christian people, and therefore he thought to make a careful and ample refutation thereof.
In Gallias inde profectus, a Pothino episcopo presbyter est constitutes ecclesiæ Lugdunensis. Quod munus sic laborando in verbo et doctrina gessit, ut testibus sanctis martyribus qui, Marco Aurelio imperatore, strenue pro vera pietate certarant, æmulatorem sese præstiterit testamenti Christi. Cum martyres ipsi clerusque Lugdunensis, de pace ecclesiarum Asiæ quam Montanistarum factio turbarat, solliciti cum primis essent; Irenæum, cujus esse potissimum habendam rationem prædicabant, unum omnium maxime delegerunt, quem Romam ad Eleutherium pontificem mitterent rogatum, ut novis sectariis auctoritate Sedis Apostolicæ reprobatis, discordiarum causa tolleretur. Being come into Gaul, he was attached as Priest to the Church of Lyons, by Saint Pothinus, the Bishop. Laboring in the discharge of which office, both by word and doctrine he showed himself to be a true “zelator of the Testament of Christ,” as the holy martyrs expressed it, who in the time of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor, were strenuously combating for the true religion. For these same Martyrs, together with the clergy of Lyons, thought they could not put into better hands than his, the affair of the pacification of the Churches of Asia that had been troubled by the heresy of Montanus; for this cause, so dear to their heart, they chose therefore Irenæus amongst all others, as the most worthy, and sent him to Pope Eleutherius, to implore him to condemn by Apostolic sentence these new sectaries, and to put an end to the dissensions.
Jam Pothinus episcopus martyr decesserat. Huic Irenæus cum successisset, tam feliciter munus obiit episcopatus, ut sapientia, oratione, exemploque suo, non modo brevi cives Lugdunenses omnes, sed multos etiam aliarum Galliæ urbium incolas, superstitionem atque errorem abjecisse, dedisseque christianæ militiæ nomina viderit. Interea cum de die celebrandi Paschatis orta esset contentio, ac Victor Romanus pontifex Asianos episcopos ab collegis reliquis fere omnibus dissidentes, aut prohibuisset communione sanctorum, aut prohibere minatus esset, eum Irenæus sequester pacis decenter monuit, exemplisque usus pontificum superiorum, induxit ut ne tot ecclesias, ob ritum quem a majoribus accepisse se dicerent, avelli ab unitate catholica pateretur. The Bishop Pothinus had died a martyr. Irenæus having succeeded him, so happy was his episcopacy, owing to his wisdom, prayer, and example, that soon, not only the city of Lyons, but even a great number of the inhabitants of other cities in Gaul, renounced the error of their superstitions and gave their names to be enlisted in the army of Christ. Meanwhile, a contest arose on the subject of the exact day on which Easter should be celebrated; the bishops of Asia were in disagreement with nearly all their colleagues; and the Roman Pontiff, Victor, had already cut them off from the communion of Saints, or was on the point of so doing, when Irenæus appeared before him, as a seeker of peace, and most respectfully admonishing him, induced him, after the example of the Pontiffs his predecessors, not to suffer so many Churches to be torn away from Catholic unity, on account only of a rite which they said they had received from their fathers.
Multa scripsit, quæ Eusebius Cæsariensis et sanctus Hieronymus memorant, quorumque pars magna intercidit injuriæ temporum. Exstant ejus adversus hæreses libri quinque, anno circiter centesimo octogesimo perscripti, dum adhuc Eleutherius rem christianam publicam gereret. In tertio libro vir Dei, ab iis edoctus quos auditores constat fuisse Apostolorum, grave in primis atque præclarum de Romana ecclesia, deque illius episcorporum successione, divinæ traditionis fideli, perpetua, certissima custode, dixit. Atque ad hanc, ait, ecclesiam, propter potiorem principalitatem, necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam, hoc est, eos qui sunt undique fideles. Prostremo, una cum aliis prope innumerabilibus, quos ipse ad veram fidem frugemque perduxerat, martyrio coronatus, migravit in cœlum, anno salutis ducentesimo secundo: quo tempore Septimius Severus Augustus eos omnes qui constanter in colenda christiana religione perstare voluissent, in summum cruciatum dari atque interfici imperaverat. He wrote many works which are mentioned by Eusebius of Cæsarea and Saint Jerome, a great part of which have perished through the ravages of time. There are extant, however, five books of his against heresies, written about the year one hundred and eighty, whilst Eleutherius was governing the Church. In the third Book, the man of God, instructed by those who, as it is certain, had been disciples of the Apostles, renders to the Roman Church and to the succession of her Bishops a testimony surpassing all others in weight and brilliancy; and he says that the Roman Church is the faithful, perpetual, and most assured guardian of divine tradition. Moreover he says that it is with this Church, that every other Church (namely the faithful who dwell in any other place whatsoever), must agree, because she hath a principality superior to all others. At length, he was crowned by martyrdom, together with an almost countless multitude whom he had himself brought over to the knowledge and practice of the true faith; he passed away unto heaven, in the year of salvation two hundred and two: at which time Septimus Severus Augustus had commanded that all those who persisted in the practice of the Christian religion should be condemned to most cruel torments and to death.

Oh! what a crown is thine, most noble Pontiff! Man must needs confess himself utterly unable to count the pearls with which it is adorned. For in the arena where thou didst win it, a whole people were thy fellow combatants; and as each martyr, one by one, ascended to his throne in heaven, he proclaimed thy glory, for he owed his crown to thee. Before this, full five and twenty years, the blood of Blandina and her companions had been shed, and, thanks to thee, had produced a hundredfold. Thy toilsome care had brought that fruitful seed to germinate from out the empurpled soil that had received it, in the early days of Christianity, and now the once small colony of the Faithful, scattered in its midst, had become the very city itself. Formerly the amphitheater was spacious enough for the effusion of the martyrs’ blood; but now the sacred stream must flow in torrents along the streets and squares: Oh! glad day that made Lyons become Rome’s rival and the holy city of the Gauls!

The sons of those that died with thee have ever remained faithful to Jesus Christ; do thou, together with Mary whose position and dignity thou didst so admirably expound to their fathers, and with the Precursor of the Man-God who so fully shares their love, protect them against every scourge whether of body or of soul. Spare France; drive far from her, yea this second time, the invasion of a false philosophy, which is attempting nowadays to revive the aberrations of Gnosticism. Cause truth once more to shine upon the eyes of so many whom heresy, under these multiform disguises, holds in separation from the one Fold. O Irenæus, maintain Christians in that peace which alone deserves the name: keep ever pure the minds and hearts of those whom error, as yet, has not sullied. Prepare us now to celebrate befittingly the two glorious Apostles Peter and Paul, and the powerful principality of the Mother of all the Churches!


This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)