Pope Francis proclaims Saint Irenaeus “Doctor of the Church”

Choosing a saint as a doctor of the Church is never the result of chance. The objective is less to honor the intellectual qualities of this or that exceptional figure than to offer the people of God a teaching capable of helping them to face the challenges of the present time. From the distance IIand century it is therefore more particularly to unity that Saint Irenaeus calls us.

If, as Pope Francis pointed out on October 7, 2021, Irenaeus can be considered a “great spiritual and theological bridge between Christians of the East and West”, it is primarily for biographical reasons. Indeed, this Father of the Church, originally from the region of Smyrna (today Izmir in Turkey) in Asia Minor, was formed in the Christian faith by Saint Polycarp who himself was a disciple of the Evangelist John .

In this school, Irenaeus received a theological vision that finds its deep meaning in the perspective of the divinization of man, which he then transmitted to the West. The latter is created to see God, to be like him and this, because of the incarnation of the Word. “There is in Irenaeus, emphasizes Father Philippe Henne, pathologist at the Catholic University of Lille, an exaltation of the unity of man who is not pure spirit. Hence, the suggestive commentary of the Doctor of the Church about certain angels jealous of the body of man because shaped by the hands of God. »

An optimistic view of human nature

This high vocation which consists in allowing oneself to be transformed by God rests on a rather optimistic vision of human nature. Irenaeus had to defend it fiercely against the Gnostics (the Valentinians in particular) who denied the flesh in favor of the spirit alone. His name may literally mean “the peacemaker”, but there is nothing irenic about Irenaeus! His whole life as theologian and pastor was marked by harsh controversies such as we find recorded in his masterpiece Against heresies.

No, insists the bishop and theologian, the body is not a vile and corrupt instrument that should be rejected. No, human deficiencies do not have the last word. Why ? Because “the Son of God, by becoming man, took up within himself the whole history of humanity with its greatness and its weaknesses in order to transform it”. In Irenaeus, the notion of recapitulation is essential, “which makes it even very modern, adds the patrologue, because today’s world is more sensitive to the idea of ​​maturation, of evolution than of sin”.

Become one in God

This path of divinization offered to man does not happen all by itself. It is based on a reality, sometimes disparaged, that Irenaeus’ doctorate could help us rediscover: that of his inscription in the tradition of the Church. Contrary to popular belief, this has nothing to do with a reductive fixism. It is rather the means by which we become one in God and with other men, in a communion that allows for the necessary diversities. For example, recalls Philippe Henne, “Irenaeus intervened with Pope Victor to plead in favor of the communities which celebrated Easter on a date other than the Church of Rome”.

In his life as in his theological work, the second bishop of Lyon can therefore be considered an authentic doctor of unity. The freshness of his teaching is an encouragement for Christians today. Admittedly, the crises are numerous but, concludes the specialist in the Fathers of the Church, “Irenaeus teaches us that faith is not a long calm river. It is always a question of a negotiation between the reality of what we are and the magnificent project that is proposed to us: divinization. »

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon is the 37th Doctor of the Church.

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Pope Francis proclaims Saint Irenaeus “Doctor of the Church”

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