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Irenaeus, Bishop, c. 130-202
This saint, whose name means “peace lover,” was considered the first great theologian in the Church. It is believed that Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor, and became a priest in early adulthood. He was a disciple of Polycarp who, in turn, was a disciple of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist.
When commerce built up between Asia Minor and Gaul, the Church, which had strong roots in the east, began missionary work in Gaul. Polycarp sent Irenaeus to work under Pothinus, the bishop of Lyons in Gaul. Around this time, a cult had developed in Asia Minor under Montanus who claimed the gift of prophecy and spread erroneous interpretations of Sacred Scripture. In 177, Pothinus, who had also come from Asia Minor, sent Irenaeus to Rome with a letter to the pope pleading for leniency with their Christian brothers in Asia Minor who had fallen under the spell of Montanus and his followers.
Before Irenaeus left for Rome, a persecution of Christians had begun in Gaul. During his absence, Pothinus and others were martyred, and when Irenaeus returned to Lyons, it was as bishop.
Irenaeus was greatly known for evangelization in the areas around his see. But it is for his defense of Christianity against Gnosticism that he is remembered today. The Gnostics believed, among other things, that Jesus was never human, but only had that appearance. They also believed that procreation was sinful.
The Gnostic heresy contained many different false tenets which had been formulated under the leaders of various Gnostic sects. Irenaeus, a learned man, set out to master all of these tenets so that he could understand and refute them. He proceeded to lay each tenet out in writing and follow it to its logical conclusion. He then contrasted the tenets with the teachings of the Apostles. The writings of Irenaeus were widely circulated and are credited with eliminating the thread of Gnosticism to Christianity. The early Latin translations of his works are still extant.
Bishop Irenaeus had one more peacemaking mission in his life. The Quartodecimans, a sect of the Eastern Church, refused to celebrate Easter at the time when the Western Church celebrated this great feast. They had been excommunicated for this by Pope Victor III. Irenaeus interceded on their behalf, pointing out that they were following an old Eastern tradition. Further, that difference had not prevented Pope Anicetus and St. Polycarp from remaining in communion with the Quartodecimans. His mission was successful and a permanent peace was established. Following the Council of Nicaea, the Quartodecimans voluntarily conformed to the western calendar.
A memorial celebrates the life of this saint on June 28.
Irenaeus’ message today: If we are to defend our faith well, we need to know what sets it apart from other religions. For Catholics today, the documents of the Second Vatican Council provide a strong basis for understanding the principles of our Church in the twentieth century.