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St. Irenaeus . . . A Little-Known Saint Who Gave The Early Church Important Guidance

October 14, 2021 Frontpage No Comments

By DEXTER DUGGAN

PHOENIX — St. Irenaeus is “one of the more obscure guys or women we’re looking at,” a religious-education director told a continuing program here about the lives of saints, but this saint played an important role in the early Church.
Irenaeus, the last living connection to the apostles, was born around 120 to 140 AD, engaged in patristic apologetics and became a bishop, then died about 202 AD, Larry Fraher, Ph.D., told the October 2 session of the Institute of Catholic Theology (ICT) here.
Fraher said he discovered Irenaeus during a master’s university program and found him “to be extremely profound” for current times.
The ICT is an evangelization program based here at St. Thomas the Apostle Church. As pandemic restrictions have eased, its presentations have resumed in an on-campus classroom as well as continuing by Zoom.
Fraher is director of faith formation at Blessed Sacrament Parish in nearby Scottsdale and is on the faculty of Mary College at Arizona State University, part of the University of Mary, which also has locations in North Dakota, Montana, Kansas, and Rome.
The University of Mary website says Fraher earned his Ph.D. in art and religion from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., after two degrees from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., an MA in systematic theology and a B.A. in theological studies, and has held posts with the Diocese of Phoenix since 1989.
Born in Smyrna, Asia Minor, Irenaeus heard the preaching of St. Polycarp, Fraher said — who in turn was said to have heard St. John the Evangelist, the Gospel author.
Irenaeus was “really the first systematic theologian, if you will,” of the Church, meaning someone who understood the opposing system he was arguing against, Fraher said, and helped form patristic apologetics — the early Church fathers’ defense of Christianity.
This teaching viewed God as always being the Trinity and active at the time of Moses and the prophets, Fraher said — instead of lacking the Second Person until Jesus became material on Earth.
About 177 AD Irenaeus became the second bishop of Lyons, France, after the first bishop there, St. Pothinus, was martyred, he said.
Salvation history is a process, and Revelation is progressive, he said — just as people don’t start off as adults but first as infants who become children then adolescents. God “gave us the fullness of Revelation when we were ready, as adults. . . .
“Christ comes at that moment in history when we were prepared for that,” Fraher said, adding that the Roman occupation of Israel was followed by the fall of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jews.
If these events hadn’t happened, Christianity may have remained a Mideast sect, he said. “Christianity wouldn’t have exploded as it did.”
In Irenaeus’ Christology, Jesus gives people “a share in the divine life. . . . That God would become material is the scandal of the Incarnation,” Fraher said.
He recalled the Gospel account of the apostles asking Jesus whose sin was responsible for a man who was born blind, and He replied no one’s except that the glory of God may be revealed, then He put some mud on the man’s eyes.
Because the man was blind from birth, “He’s got nothing there” — no optic nerve that was being restored — so Jesus giving him vision was the work of “the hand of God. . . . He never had sight to begin with,” Fraher said.
This shows “He is the agent of creation. . . . Jesus Christ creates sight from nothing,” Fraher said, adding that as Adam was the first head of the human race, “Christ re-heads human nature. . . . God became what we are.”
All Marian theology is Christology, “Mary as the new Eve,” Irenaeus said, but she is not a Fourth Person of the Blessed Trinity, Fraher said.
Irenaeus articulated the importance of tradition, the primacy of Peter and Paul, and of unity with Rome, he said.
Early Christian churches exhibited a preference for one certain Gospel or another, but Irenaeus showed the importance of all four of them, Fraher said.

The Earliest Witness

The entry for Irenaeus at Wikipedia expands on this: “Before Irenaeus, Christians differed as to which gospel they preferred. The Christians of Asia Minor preferred the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular overall. Irenaeus asserted that four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were canonical Scripture.
“Thus Irenaeus provides the earliest witness to the assertion of the four canonical Gospels, possibly in reaction to [the heretic] Marcion’s edited version of the Gospel of Luke, which Marcion asserted was the one and only true Gospel,” Wikipedia says.
Responding to a question from the audience, Fraher said the Trinity was active, “even back with Moses,” instead of coming to fruition at a later time.
God calls everyone to “a covenant of obedience,” Fraher said, recalling warnings by the prophets if people weren’t faithful to this covenant.
Little is reportedly known of St. Irenaeus’ later years.
God’s ways are mysterious indeed. One can only imagine what the second-century future saint would have thought if he had known churches bearing his name would grow up around the wide world, including one in the southern California city of Cypress, near Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland.

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