Read Jenny Ang's review on "Church Fathers", a book compilation of Pope Benedict XVI’s catecheses [teachings] at his weekly General Audience with the public from March 2007 to February 2008.
Despite being received by the Catholic Church more than ten years ago, it was only recently that I came to discover its depth, richness and universality. After that, the history of the Church became a particular interest. I sought to understand where it came from, what it had to go through and who shaped it decisively through the ages.
From the Bible, we came to know how the Apostles preached the Word of God everywhere they went, planting churches along the way. To whom did the Apostles entrust their mission?
A good starting point can be found in Church Fathers, a book compilation of Pope Benedict XVI’s catecheses [teachings] at his weekly General Audience with the public from March 2007 to February 2008.
Through the book, we will get to know the lives, work and contribution of the first and second generation successors of the Apostles, whom the Church simply refers to as the Church Fathers.
They were Clement of Rome (the third successor of the Apostle Peter, after Linus and Anancletus), Ignatius of Antioch (the third Bishop of Antioch), Tertullian (a great Church theologian), Eusebius of Caesarea (the first person to write a history of the Church), Augustine of Hippo and many more.
One cannot help but note a striking difference between the Apostles and their early successors. The Apostles were in every sense, simple and ordinary men chosen by Christ to establish the Church. The Church Fathers, on the other hand, were men of towering intellect par excellence.
Nevertheless, we can see that the Church Fathers were in complete unity with the Apostles, in their belief in Christ. Each of them uniquely contributed to the building up of the Church and the development of Christianity.
It was interesting to note that St Ignatius of Antioch, who lived from 70 to 107 A.D. was “the first person in Christian literature to attribute to the Church the adjective “catholic” or “universal”: “Wherever Jesus Christ is,” he said, “there is the Catholic Church”.
In fact, Benedict points out that it was already possible to perceive the Church’s universality and catholicity as well the unifying power of the truth revealed by Christ, as far back as 200 A.D when St Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, expressed that:
“The Church, though dispersed throughout the world … having received [this faith from the Apostles] … as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth.
For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.”
We also get to meet Tertullian, a 2nd and 3rd century African theologian. The Pope tells us that Tertullian made an enormous contribution in the development of Trinitarian doctrine and gave us “an appropriate way to express this great mystery in Latin by introducing the terms “one substance” and “three Persons” “. His apologetic writings [writings defending the faith] were also of great importance to the Church.
Sadly, we are told that Tertullian’s search for the truth was too individualistic and with his uncompromising character, he eventually moved away from the Church to become part of the Montanist sect. This is what the Pope has to say about Tertullian:
“One sees that at the end he lacked the simplicity, the humility to integrate himself with the Church, to accept his weaknesses, to be forebearing with others and himself. When one sees his thought in all its greatness, in the end, it is precisely this greatness that is lost. The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others’ weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We, instead, always need forgiveness.”
I think it is not difficult to find great men, throughout history, who had parted communion with the Catholic Church for similar reasons.
The book also gives us a fascinating and more in depth account of St Augustine of Hippo, a 4th and 5th century man. He was described by the Pope “as a man of passion and faith, of highest intelligence and tireless in his pastoral care, a great saint and Doctor of the Church.” He also left the greatest number of works which had and continue to have decisive influence on the Christian thought and literature even up till now. Where his personal life was concerned, it was drama-filled.
By the Pope’s synopsis of the Church Fathers, we can see how they had to endure physical hardship and mental anguish; deal with Church dissensions; refute heresies and work to heal internal divisions; preach the Word and encourage the believers. Some of their lives were spent in political upheavals, violent persecutions, invasions and/or exiles. Many of them went to their death as martyrs. Undoubtedly, it is not hard to imagine that they also had to contend with their own weaknesses, failings and doubts, just like the Apostles and each one of us.
All these and more, so as to expound and preach the Christian faith and carefully preserving this “deposit of faith” for future generations, utterly convinced of the truth passed down by the Apostles and out of their great love for Jesus.
And, I note with a humble sense of awe and wonder that the tasks of leading the Catholic Church and preserving the deposit of faith have been passed on to the present Pope and the bishops in communion with him, through an uninterrupted line of apostolic succession and will continue in the ages to come despite human frailties, with God as the guarantor.
As for the faithful, we have to do our part to pray for the Pope, the bishops, the priests and the religious that they will have the humility, courage and conviction of the faith to carry on Christ’s mission and we are to help them in this mission.
Will we all stumble, even to the point of dramatic failure at times? Sorrowfully, yes. I think it is fitting to hear what St Augustine had to say and highlighted by Benedict in the final pages of Church Fathers:
“I understood that only One is truly perfect and that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are completely realized in only One – Jesus Christ himself. The whole Church, instead – all of us, including the Apostles – must pray every day: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
The Church Fathers make wonderful companions, telling us and showing us by their very own lives, relevant even today, how to persevere in our faith in quiet or turbulent times.
Contributor: Jenny Ang