Denver, Colo., Jun 23, 2013 / 05:13 am America/Denver (CNA).
Celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church on June 28, and by Eastern Catholics of the Byzantine tradition on August 23, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons was a second-century bishop and writer in present-day France.
He is best known for defending Christian orthodoxy, especially the reality of Christ’s human incarnation, against the set of heresies known as Gnosticism.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke admiringly of St. Irenaeus in a 2007 general audience, recalling how this early Church Father “refuted the Gnostic dualism and pessimism which debased corporeal realities. He decisively claimed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the flesh no less than of the spirit.”
“But his work went far beyond the confutation of heresy: in fact, one can say that he emerges as the first great Church theologian who created systematic theology; he himself speaks of the system of theology, that is, of the internal coherence of all faith.”
While some of St. Irenaeus’ most important writings have survived, the details of his life are not as well-preserved. He was born in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, likely in the Aegean coastal city of Smyrna, probably around the year 140. As a young man he heard the preaching of the early bishop (and eventual martyr) Saint Polycarp, who had been personally instructed by the Apostle John.
Irenaeus eventually became a priest, and served in the Church of Lyons (in the region of Gaul) during a difficult period in the late 170s. During this time of state persecution and doctrinal controversy, Irenaeus was sent to Rome to provide Pope St. Eleutherius with a letter about the heretical movement known as Montanism. After returning to Lyons, Irenaeus became the city’s second bishop, following the martyrdom of his predecessor Saint Pothinus.