“Nothing is sadder than someone who has lost his memory, and the church which has lost its memory is in the same state of senility.” These trenchant words were spoken at the Anglicans’ General Synod in 1988 by Henry Chadwick, scholar of Early Christianity. Chadwick believed that if Anglicanism and Catholicism were to return to early Christianity, there would be no major divisions between them. The faith, he held, was united at the time of the Church Fathers. As if to acknowledge this fact in an angular way, the former primate of the Church of England, Archbishop Rowan Williams suggested: “The Anglican Church may not have a pope, but it does have Henry Chadwick.”
Conversions through the Church Fathers
At Oxford more than a century before the 1988 Anglican Synod, John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest, came into the Catholic faith for one critical reason. He attributed his conversion to the writings of the Church Fathers who convinced him that the Church had taught and proclaimed the truth of Christianity from Early Christianity through the centuries. His conversion was “slow, deliberate, and painful, but by no means half-hearted,” notes Avery Dulles.
Likewise, in 1940, as a student at Harvard, the future Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. came into the Catholic faith, also for one critical reason. Like Newman, he had read the writings of many Church Fathers who convinced him as well that the Church had taught and proclaimed the Catholic and apostolic faith from Early Christianity through the centuries.
Who Are the Fathers of the Church?
The word Fathers applies to Christian writers marked by orthodoxy of doctrine. These great teachers and pastors lived from the first to the eighth centuries. Patristics is that branch of theology which, strictly speaking, centers on their writings. Patristic literature has played a significant role in the religious formation of the Church, especially in the Christian East.
These theologians were men of prayer who did their theology “on their knees,” a phrase often used by Hans Urs von Balthasar. They penetrated the meaning and message of Revelation desiring to understand what they believed. The unity between doctrine and life, and the unity between faith and practical living – this is what their holiness revealed.
What Did the Fathers Write About?
The Fathers wrote on almost every conceivable topic of human experience and continue to nourish today’s Catholic and Orthodox Christian. They hammered out the dogma of the Trinity and made this central belief practical by stressing the Pauline teaching: We are temples of God, and God lives within us. We are God’s sacred and beloved sanctuaries.
They dealt with the mystery of the God-Man, the mystery that the second Person of the Trinity became a man, lived and died as a man, and was raised by his Father as the resurrected Lord. If Jesus was not fully human, they preached, we could not have been saved. If Jesus was not fully God, we could not have been saved.
One cannot speak of the early Church without turning to the Fathers, especially those Eastern sages who, from the very outset, shaped the destiny of that Church. It should be noted that while the Western part of the Church was being besieged by barbarian tribes, the Church in the East enjoyed periods of relative peace.
“Their Christianity is not the same as ours,” writes Robert Payne; they were people of warm imaginations, more incandescent than the Fathers of the Western Church, fiercer in denunciation, quicker in anger, more sudden to praise.” (The Holy Fire, xii) These Eastern luminaries guided the Church in the centuries following the Age of Christian persecution. They laid a solid foundation in faith, spirituality and liturgical life for the Church of the future. Remarkable for their timeless beauty of expression, their writings have been a living part of the Eastern Churches. They wrote about abstract words like beauty, truth, goodness, and love not by proving them with human logic but by tangible examples to prove the intangible tangible.
The Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church, abounds with excerpts from the sermons and writings of Fathers, both of the West and East. The listing is long: in the West, Clement, Origen, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine; in the East, Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzen, and Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, John Damascene, and many others. These and many more are included in the Liturgy of the Hours.
St. John Chrysostom
The following reflection of “the golden-mouthed Father” is as relevant today as it was in his own time. It treats the abuse of money and its relationship to the education of youth, a single example of the enduring quality of patristic thought:
“. . . Nothing is as precious as a human soul. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his soul? Yet the love of money has perverted and destroyed all our values; it has driven out the fear of God and holds our souls in its power, as a tyrant holds a citadel. In consequence we neglect the spiritual welfare of our children and of ourselves in our desire to become richer. … The folly of it! What tyranny money exercises!
… Yet no profession is more important than that of teaching. For what could equal an art which aims at directing the soul and forming the mind and character of a young man? One with these gifts should become more conscientious than any painter or sculptor. Yet we completely neglect all this. The one thing that matters to us is that our son should learn to speak well. And even this we are keen on simply for the sake of making money. He does not study a language primarily to enable him to speak well, but only to enable him to get rich. In fact, if a man could become wealthy without being able to speak at all, we would not bother about such lessons.” (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew #59 quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours according to the Roman Rite, 2:2211-2212).
The Church Fathers exercised the moral authority of true leadership, and without them the Church could not have developed in the way it did. Their writings remain a source of practical wisdom and morality – guides for contemporary Christian living. During the course of the next several weeks, these weekly essays will feature several of the Church Fathers so that the amnesia sadly ascribed to the Anglican faith-tradition by Henry Chadwick does not eventually come to afflict Catholics. The truth they transmitted from the primitive Church has beamed its unbroken light without shadow down through the centuries, however dark, in which they shine like the stars. (Paraphrase: Philippians 2:14-15).