The early Fathers did not know the crisis in the Church as we know it, but they give clear direction on fundamental matters.
Why would anyone want to study the Fathers of the Church?
Learning about the early Church Fathers was something I had always believed I needed to do. Apart from a little about St. Augustine, I did not know much about these men, many of whom were martyred for the Faith. Ignatius of Antioch was one I had read and some of the other names were familiar, However my awareness of their teachings was very sketchy. I regarded them as a kind of ballast at the foundation of the Church, a weight that gave substance and strength.
Why would anyone want to study the Fathers of the Church? They were alive so long ago and whatever it was that they decreed was absorbed into mainstream Catholic doctrine. We have benefited from their wisdom and we honour them for their lives which bore witness to the Faith but apart from that, is it necessary to know any more? There are so many pressing issues in the Church today, that it could seem rather an indulgence to spend time on matters that can have little relevance for the present time.
The Patristics Summer School was run by Bavarian theologian Michaela Hastetter and Georgian Orthodox theologian, Givi Lomidze of the Vienna Study House of St. John Damascus, with Irishman Sean McGee and Dr. Mary McCaughey. There were also lectures from Professor D. Vincent Twomey. It took place over a week in the beautiful surroundings of Enniscrone, Co. Sligo.
I embarked on the course with the understanding that I was going to be studying history. However at the end of the week I had an entirely different view. The title of the course was “Understanding Jesus Christ with the Fathers of the Church as an answer to the Crisis of Faith Today.” And that was the important thing.
It was through their refuting heresy that the truth became evident.
Some people make the point that it is possible nowadays to learn everything by means of the internet. Why would we give up a week to study the Fathers of the Church, when we could learn as much by reading about them? Responding to this, what came to my mind is that studying is very different from reading. When we gain knowledge by reading, it is like we put that knowledge up on a bookshelf in our head. We can take it down sometimes but mostly it remains in the head.
Studying the Fathers, we engaged with them; we discussed them and pondered their thoughts. It was through their refuting heresy that the truth became evident. This is especially so in the case of Irenaeus. These are eternal truths and deep mysteries. Pondering is something we rarely do, and yet we our told Our Blessed Lady pondered in her heart.
In “Pope Benedict – the Conscience of Our Age” Father Vincent Twomey, a former student of the Pope, tells us that Joseph Ratzinger’s preferred method of teaching was to select a contemporary issue and examine it in the light of theology. With that in mind and with the assistance of the Fathers, I thought it would be useful to look at the vexed question of women’s ordination. The question is not vexed because it is difficult. It is actually simple. The Church has no authority to ordain women, and we are not permitted to discuss this. The vexation occurs because certain people will not leave the subject alone.
Take for example, the proposition of a prominent Irishwoman, well-versed in legal matters, who recently proposed that the Church should ordain women because they had shown themselves more faithful than men at the time of the passion and death of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel reports that all the men fled. Later we hear from the same Gospel, that several women were present at the Crucifixion. Therefore they were more deserving, she says, of being given the supreme privilege of the priesthood.
We cannot judge this person of course. She is a person of faith, otherwise she would not care at all, but we can judge her argument.
Having studied the method of the Church Fathers, I was able to follow their leadership and look for the main question. In the above example, while it might seem that the main question is that women should be ordained, this is not the case. Is it that the authority of the Church is not acknowledged? Or is there an even deeper question? Can she be saying that maybe Jesus made the wrong choice?
Apart from the absurdity of such a claim, the point has to be made that this is not a valid argument. It does not take account of all the evidence. Surely this particular lawyer is aware that there are three other Gospels? The ordination of the apostles took place at the Last Supper when the Eucharist was instituted. Additionally, it is clear that John was present at the death of Jesus. We know that Peter did not flee but followed the captured Jesus to the house of Annas. Peter, due to his human fear and weakness, denied knowing Jesus. However, unlike Judas, he repented and after the resurrection, at the Sea of Galilee, he was re-instated by the Lord, as the leader of the Church.
The richness and wisdom of the Fathers cannot be condensed.
The voice of Irenaeus echoes across the centuries. There is nothing new in trying to interpret the Gospel to suit your own agenda. This was the heresy of Valentinus and his disciples who mutilated the Gospel. These men falsify the oracles of God and draw others away under a pretence of superior knowledge. “By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system.”
The richness and wisdom of the Fathers cannot be condensed. The profound understanding of Athanasius on “The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution in the Incarnation” gives a good example of eternal truth, the relevance of which we can apply today. It is an answer to perhaps the most fundamental question of all. When our first parents disobeyed God, this was the original sin that affected the whole of humanity. As a religious teacher I had often been asked why could God not have turned the whole thing round and forgiven them? Why was it necessary to send his own Son to die a horrific and shameful death to redeem the human race?
Because of our human limitation we see everything in terms of our own idea of justice. Through the eyes of Athanasius however, we can begin to see with the eyes of faith as well as reason. We have to get to a higher level. God, being Absolute Truth could not go back on his word which he had given to Adam and Eve. The law of death followed from the transgression and there was no escape from it. However it was equally monstrous that God having created mankind could allow his creation to perish. “It was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits.” The solution as we know was the incarnation of the Son of God. “His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father his consistency of character with all.”
Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” needs to be read in full. The concept of Absolute Truth is hard for us to grasp. We who often change our minds or adapt the truth in some way to suit ourselves, are yet at the same time faced with certain issues that we believe cannot be changed.
Church Fathers give clear direction on fundamental matters.
This is an answer to the present day problem of relativism. While certainly some situations are negotiable, others are definitely not. The early Fathers did not know the crisis in the Church as we know it, but they give clear direction on fundamental matters. We are made in the image of God, so the Truth is deep in us even when we are not conscious of it. Abortion is always wrong; same-sex unions are always wrong, the case for making women priests is always wrong. There is no compromise with these matters because they have their foundation in Absolute Truth.
From John Chrysostom we learned to ponder deeply the parables in the Gospel of Matthew, particularly the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in a field and from John Damascene we pondered the divine and human will of Jesus. I began to appreciate more that not alone did Jesus die to redeem us but that he appropriated our personalities so that we now have the ability through him to overcome our natural weaknesses.
Finally, what stays with me is an enduring image given by Dr. Givi. He claims that we should have the same attitude towards the Fathers as we have when we drive our cars. We frequently check our rear-view mirror and although we do not spend too much time on what is behind, we take it into consideration. Being aware of what is behind helps us avoid crashing our car!