Today is the feast day of Saint Irenaeus. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
St. Irenasus, one of the earliest and most renowned Fathers of the Church, was born in Asia, and placed under the charge of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, a disciple of St. John, the Evangelist. Under this holy teacher, Irenasus made such progress in virtue and sacred science, that he was by him ordained priest and sent to Lyons, in France, to preach the Gospel of Christ to the heathens, and to assist the persecuted Christians. On his arrival after a most tedious voyage, he began at once to discharge the duties of his function with truly apostolic zeal. To the heathens he preached the Gospel of the Lord, and bore testimony to it with many miracles; hence almost all, who had not yet embraced Christianity, became believers in the true God. The Christians, who had to surfer persecution, he encouraged to remain constant in their faith in the midst of their tortures. After the persecution of the faithful had somewhat subsided, Photinus, Bishop of Lyons, sent him to Rome, to get the solution of several questions and doubts which the Christians of that city had addressed to Eleutherius, who at that period was Pope. The latter received Irenaeus with great joy, as he had been informed of his zeal, and gave him the answers to all questions and doubts. On this occasion, Ireneus watched carefully all the ceremonies which were performed at Rome, and acquainted himself with the ancient traditions which had been left there by the Apostles, that he might be able to introduce them at Lyons.
Meanwhile the holy bishop Photinus, received the crown of Martyrdom at Lyons, and Irenaeus, on his return, was chosen to fill the vacant See. Having taken upon himself this heavy and dangerous burden, he employed all his efforts to gather his flock, which, partly discouraged by long persecutions, had dispersed hither and thither. He encouraged the despondent, strengthened the wavering, raised the fallen, consoled the sorrowful, instructed the ignorant, and comforted the needy, both by words and deeds. After having thus, in every way, bettered the condition of his Church, he sent several excellent and zealous priests to the neighboring cities and villages, charging them to convert the inhabitants, who were idolaters, to the faith of Christ, which, to the salvation of numberless souls, was happily effected.
Satan, unable to bear the success of the holy bishop’s endeavors, sent the two notorious arch-heretics, Marcion and Valentine, into the neighborhood of Lyons, to sow the seeds of their heresy among the newly converted. The Saint, however, manifested no less watchfulness in protecting the faithful, than solicitude in converting the heathens. He not only disclosed and refuted, in his sermons, the falsehood of the doctrines which were disseminated by these heretics, but he also used the pen against them, and wrote several learned books, in which he placed the truth of the apostolic faith and the errors of heresy so clearly before the eyes of every one, that no heretics dared further to disturb the peace of his flock with their wicked doctrines. The faithful were strengthened to such a degree in their belief by these works, that, in a persecution which took place later, they preferred to sacrifice their lives, rather than depart in the least from the precepts of their Church.
The heroic constancy of so many Christians has been most justly ascribed to the indefatigable zeal of Irenaeus. It was also the result of his endeavors, that several bishops, who had forsaken the Pope, returned to him, and that others remained obedient to the holy Father. Victor, the holy Pope, had decided that the Christians should not celebrate Easter on the same day as the Jews; but, according to a verbal direction of St. Peter, on a Sunday. Many bishops in the East had adopted a different rule for the celebration of the feast, and would not alter it. Irenaeus exhorted all, in several letters, to be obedient to the Church at Rome, as the mother and instructress of all the other Churches. The high esteem in which the holiness and erudition of Irenasus was held by every one, was the cause that almost all the refractory Bishops submitted to the judgment of the Pope.
After this and many more labors of St. Irenaeus for the Church of Christ and for the salvation of souls, a new persecution of the Christians arose in the reign of the Emperor Severus. So many were executed in Lyons, that according to the language of St. Gregory, Bishop of Tours, the streets were overflowed with blood. And among those who thus testified with their lives to Christ’s teachings, was also St Irenaeus. He taught by his example what he had so often preached to his fold, namely, to suffer the most cruel martyrdom rather than abandon the true faith. The body of this Saint was buried by Zachary, a Priest, and was always kept in great honor, until the year 1562, when Lyons was besieged and taken by the Huguenots. They tore the holy relics out of the tomb where they rested and threw them into a well, while they cast the head, after treating it most indecently, into a pit. The head was, however, found after some time and publicly exposed to receive due honor.(2)
Born in Asia Minor, probably Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey), between 115 and 125. Saint Irenaeus, was one of the earliest and most renowned Fathers of the Church. He was placed under the charge of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. Under this holy teacher, Irenaeus made such progress in virtue and sacred science, that he was ordained priest and sent to Lugdunum (Lyons), in France, to preach the Gospel of Christ to the heathens, and to assist the persecuted Christians.
To the heathens he preached the Gospel of the Lord. The Christians, who had to suffer persecution, he encouraged them to remain constant in their faith in the midst of their tortures. After the persecution of the faithful had somewhat subsided, Photinus, Bishop of Lyons, sent him to Pope Eleutherius in Rome. The latter received Irenaeus with great joy, as he had been informed of his zeal. On this occasion, Irenaeus watched carefully all the ceremonies performed at Rome, and acquainted himself with the ancient traditions left there by the Apostles– that he might be able to introduce them at Lyons.
Returning to Gaul, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Saint Photinus as Bishop of Lyons. During the religious peace which followed the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the new bishop divided his activities between the duties of a pastor and of a missionary (as to which we have but brief data, late and not very certain). His writings include: Against heresies and The Presentation of the Apostolic Preaching. They have a twofold aim: to explain the truth of the faith clearly and to defend the true doctrine from the attacks of heretics.
Before Irenaeus, Christians differed as to which gospel they preferred. The Christians of Asia Minor preferred the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular overall. Irenaeus asserted that four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were canonical scripture. Thus Irenaeus provides the earliest witness to the assertion of the four canonical Gospels.
Nothing is known of the date of his death, which must have occurred at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. In spite of some isolated and later testimony to that effect, it is not very probable that he ended his career with martyrdom. His body was buried at Lyons in the Church of St John (later, the Church of St Irenaeus), but the shrine was destroyed by Calvinists in 1562. (4)
Image: Saint Irenaeus (6)