FOCUS ON THE SAINTS: Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. Feast Day – 28th June 2021

Fr Billy Swan


Saint Irenaeus (130-202 AD) is an early Church saint who most people have probably never heard of but who was a crucially important figure as the early Church clarified what it believed and why.

He came from Izmir in modern day Turkey but ended up as bishop of Lyons in France. This information is significant for it posits Irenaeus as a bridge between Eastern and Western Christianity. He was a friend of St Polycarp (69-155 AD) who was a disciple of the Apostle John. Therefore, Irenaeus was a close witness to the words and legacy of Jesus, compelling us to pay close attention to his teachings..

Irenaeus is remembered for his contribution to a major controversy that arose in the early Church. It was a heresy known as Gnosticism which taught that the world was created by a lesser divinity and that the spiritual or real world was made through Christ. This heresy created a split in how creation was perceived – the spiritual as good and the material as bad. It also created a split in the Church – between those who were smart enough to grasp this and those who were not. Irenaeus vigorously opposed this view and argued for the integrity of all creation in God – that everything was created by the one God and so was good. He also rejected the elitism of the gnostics and insisted that knowledge of God was open to everyone just as his love is the gift to all too. He emphasized the unity of the Old and New Testaments, Christ’s human and divine nature and the value of tradition. He also had a deep appreciation of the widespread presence and action of the Holy Spirit and connected this to the Church: ‘For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace’. In sum, Irenaeus held in close proximity the divine and the human both in the person of Christ and in all the baptised – that Christian lives and bodies are indeed penetrated by the spirit of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

For Irenaeus, the incarnation was the key moment of history when the Son of God became human and so God entered into history. God did this for love of us and in order to share the divine life with us his adopted family. Irenaeus described this in language of exchange: ‘For this is why the Word became human, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that humanity, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a child of God’. He also coined one of the most memorable statements of the early Church that sums up the interaction between God’s grace and human freedom. He wrote that ‘The glory of God is the human person fully alive’.

This means that God is not a competitor of humanity. God is not the enemy of our freedom but guarantees it. As Thomas Aquinas would later say, ‘God’s grace builds on nature’ and so illuminates the human person, making us more whole, beautiful and complete. Here is an argument that hasn’t gone away. Many are still convinced that we are better off without faith, without God. Better to go it alone. Irenaeus suffered martyrdom about the year 202, under the Emperor Severus, at Lyons.

We might think that the heresy of Gnosticism is confined to history. Think again. Early Church heresies do not disappear but reinvent themselves in new times and ages. In his Apostolic Exhortation ‘Rejoice and be Glad’, Pope Francis identifies Gnosticism as one of the two subtle enemies of holiness, the other being Pelagianism (the thought that we can achieve holiness by our own efforts and so merit eternal life). For Francis, ‘Gnosticism presumes a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings’ (para. 36).

He continues: ‘Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity. “Gnostics” do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines. They think of the intellect as separate from the flesh, and thus become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions. In the end, by disembodying the mystery, they prefer “a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people’ (para. 37).

Here is a warning to us that we can’t reduce the mystery of Christ to a harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything. In other words, we need to keep room for love being a form of knowing. It is a reminder that the Spirit’s gift of wisdom belongs to the whole Church and not just to a chosen few.

The prayers and wisdom of St Irenaeus are a sure guide for us as we become a more synodal church. He encourages us to have the confidence to engage with the real questions of faith and ministry in the Church at this time. Some people might feel intimidated to speak or raise their voice or because they believe they do not know enough. But Irenaeus has already fought this battle before us and points out that our faith and the expression of it is not a closed system, devoid of the life-giving capacity to pose questions, describe doubts and inquiries. In the words of Pope Francis: ‘The questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials and their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously. Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us’ (Rejoice and Be Glad, 44).

May St Irenaeus pray for us as we thank God for his insights that have not lost their relevance for this time of transition and change.