On this day: St. Irenaeus

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Irenaeus, a Bishop and Father of the Church, a Greek, who was born in Asia Minor, c. 125, and who died in Lyons, c. 202. He was educated by St. Polycarp and Justin Martyr.

Click here for the Mass, and here for the Liturgy of the Hours. One of the Readings is taken from St. Irenaeus' treatise, Against Heresies. Click here for all five books of the treatise, which put an end to the influence of Gnosticism.

For an introduction to St. Irenaeus, see The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine H. Pagels, Random House, 1979. The issues that Irenaeus addressed in the second century still concern the hierarchy today. One was the primacy of bishops

In the first few generations of Christianity, "the communities scattered throughout the known world organized themselves in ways that differed widely from one group to another.

"Yet by A.D., 200, the situation had changed. Christianity had become an institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, who understood themselves to be the guardians of the only 'true faith.' . . . Deploring the diversity of the earlier movement, Bishop Irenaeus and his followers insisted that there could be only one church, and outside of that church, he declared, 'there is no salvation'." Page xxiii.

"Members of the inner circle [of Gnostics] suggested that what the bishop and priests taught publicly were only elementary doctrines. They themselves claimed to offer more--the secret mysteries, the higher teachings.

"This controversy occurred at the very time when earlier, diversified forms of church leadership were giving way to a unified hierarchy of church office. For the first time, certain Christian communities were organizing into a strict order of subordinate 'ranks' of bishops, priests, deacons, laity. In many churches the bishop was emerging, for the first time, as a 'monarch' (literally, 'sole ruler'). Increasingly, he claimed the power to act as disciplinarian and judge over those he called 'the laity.'" Page 39.

"Obey the bishops, 'For they receive simultaneously with the episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.'" Page 45.

Irenaeus also dealt with women in his polemic against heresy. He had a low opinion of women in general, and in particular of those who embraced Gnosticism with its teachings about feminine aspects of the divine being:

"Can we find any actual, historical reasons why these gnostic writings were suppressed? . . . We may find one clue to the answer if we ask whether gnostic Christians derive any practical, social consequences from their conception of God--and of humanity--in terms that included the feminine element. Here, clearly, the answer is yes.

"Bishop Irenaeus notes with dismay that women especially are attracted to heretical groups. 'Even in our own district of the Rhône valley,' he admits, the gnostic teacher Marcus had attracted 'many foolish women' from his own congregation, including the wife of one of Irenaeus' own deacons. Professing himself to be at a loss to account for the attraction that Marcus' group held, he offers only one explanation: that Marcus himself was a diabolically clever seducer, a magician who compounded special aphrodisiacs to 'deceive, victimize, and defile' his prey. . . . Marcus 'addresses them in such seductive words as his prayers to Grace, 'She who is before all things, and to Wisdom and Silence, the feminine element of the divine being. Second, he says, Marcus seduced women 'by telling them to prophesy--which they were strictly forbidden to do in the orthodox church. . . . Worst of all, from Irenaeus' viewpoint, Marcus invited women to act as priests in celebrating the eucharist with him." Pages 59-60.

For more on St. Irenaeus, see Irenaeus: An Introduction, by Denis Minns, O.P., T & T Clark, 2010. Suggested search terms: women, Jesus.

UPDATE: St. Gregory of Tours, who lived three centuries later, wrote about St. Irenaeus. He was not his teacher.

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