I myself only discovered the Fathers about ten months ago. Despite going to Mass each week of my entire life (that’s approximately 1,534 sermons), going to Catholic school for six years, and taking part in adult formation throughout my twenties, I can never remember any of these men being discussed or even mentioned with the exception of St. Augustine and, even then, he was only mentioned in passing.
Who were they?
The Early Church Fathers were those Christians who lead and taught the Church after the Apostles.
At the death of the last Apostle, the Church neither ground to a halt nor descended into chaos. Why? It was because new people took over leadership of the Church. These successors were given the responsibility to faithfully teach what they had received from the Apostles, which the Apostles in turn had received from Christ. Later, as this new generation of leaders passed away, another generation was given the responsibility of caring for Christ’s lambs.
Saying exactly who is and who isn’t a Father is a little tricky because “Early Church Father” isn’t a title bestowed upon a person by the Church in the same way other titles are, such as “Doctor of the Church”. However, St. Vincent of Lérins put forth the following criteria to determine whether or not someone should be called an “Early Church Father”:
1. Antiquity: To qualify as an Early Church Father, one would have had to have lived during the early portion of the Church’s life, approximately the first six to eight centuries. This period of time is usually known as the “Patristic Era”.
2. Sanctity: The person in question has to have demonstrated holiness of life. It is for this reason that virtually all Fathers are also Saints.
3. Orthodoxy: You can’t be an Early Church Father and be a heretic – it is for this reason Arius is not considered a Father.
Having said that, there are some figures such as Tertullian who are often regarded as Church Fathers even though they ended their lives apart from the Church. Even so, the writings of such people can tell us much.
4. Recognition: There must be a general recognition within the Church that the person was a Father.
All in all, using this set of criteria, there are about 100 Early Church Fathers. They are a truly “Catholic” collection, in the sense that they lived throughout the world (France, Palestine, Africa, …), spoke different languages (Latin, Greek, Syriac, …) and had very different personalities (contemplative, feisty, …).
Were there “Church Mothers”? You’ll have to wait for another post to find that one out…
Why are they important?
They were prolific teachers. They left behind for us a treasure-trove of writings and insights into the Christian life and into Sacred Scripture. If ever I’m at a Bible study and I say something that sounds insightful, chances are that it’s not my own idea, but one I have stolen from the Early Fathers.
What makes the Fathers truly important, though, is their proximity in time to the Apostles. For example, St. Polycarp was a disciple of St. John and St. Clement was ordained by St. Peter. Who could have understood the Apostles teaching with any greater clarity than those who were taught by them directly?
Many people seem to think that the Early Church is this mysterious and unknown entity. However, the Fathers give us a witness of Apostolic faith and from them we know much about life in the Early Church. This is particularly important in the area of Catholic apologetics because the Early Church Fathers speak to us of a Church that was hierarchical, sacramental and very, very Catholic.
To truly see the value of the Fathers though, you have to read them. It is my intention to have a regular segment on this blog entitled “Who’s your daddy?” where I will look at the life and writings of a particular Father. But for now, I’ll just whet your appetite…
“Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” – St. Polycarp
“All men are ready to pass judgement on the priest as if he was not a being clothed with flesh or one who inherited a human nature.” – St. John Chrysostom
“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” – St. Ignatius of Antioch
In the words of the author of the letter to the Hebrews, “…since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1)