Central to St. John Henry Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism was his study of the early Christians, the Church Fathers.
As an Anglican minister, he believed they held the answer to the perennial problem of his denomination: the fragmentation of doctrinal and practical issues. He sought a purer reflection on Scripture in the writings of the fathers, an interpretation untainted by modern politics and controversies.
Yet his methods were – and remain – particularly appealing to modern readers. I confess that I shamelessly stole them while I was preparing my books, especially “Roots of Faith”.
Newman, whose church celebrates October 9, has read the fathers in depth, and not just to extract theoretical propositions. He wanted to enter their world – to “see” divine worship as they saw it, to experience the prayers as they recited them, to insert himself into the drama of ancient arguments.
He immersed himself in the works of the fathers so that he could tell their stories in his brief “Historical Sketches”, in his book studies and, later, in one of his novels. After decades of such work, he concludes that “of all the existing systems, the present communion of Rome is in fact that which comes closest to the Church of the Fathers. … If Saint Athanasius or Saint Ambrose suddenly came to life, there can be no doubt about the communion he would consider his own.
An interesting thing had happened. Newman’s study of the Church Fathers had led him to desire “The Church of the Fathers” (yet another title for his book). He wanted to put himself in real communion with the elders, with Athanasius and Ambrose. A notional or theoretical connection was not enough and never could be. He wanted to come out of the shadow of the hypothetical churches, based on a selective reading of the fathers of the Church, and enter into the reality of the Church of the fathers.
By declaring Cardinal Newman a saint in 2019, Pope Francis deemed his life worthy of emulation. And when it comes to meeting fathers, that should hardly be a burden.
Like Newman and his contemporaries, many people today have a keen curiosity about Christian origins. Many ordinary Christians would like to move beyond the rather petty concerns of today’s historians and documentarians (gender and conflict, conflict and gender). They would like to find their own imaginative entrance into the world of the Church Fathers. They would like “historical sketches” vivid enough to be seen with a keen eye.
And what would we see in the works of the fathers? What would we see looking through the window offered by the archeology of early Christian sites? We would see many familiar sights and sounds, scents and gestures:
- A church gathered around the Eucharist. This appears most strikingly, not only in the scriptures, but in the generation immediately following that of the apostles, the generation of the so-called apostolic fathers. The document entitled “La Didache” (circa 48 AD) includes the first Eucharistic prayers. Clement of Rome (c. AD 67) outlines the different roles of clergy and laity when they come together for Mass. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107 AD) describes the Eucharist as “the flesh of Christ” and treats the sacrament as the principle of the unity of the Church. By the time we get to Justin Martyr (c. AD 155), we find a full description of the Roman Mass recognizable enough to be reproduced verbatim in today’s Catechism of the Church.
- A church that practices sacramental confession. The fathers argued among themselves over whether the Church should be strict or lenient in the administration of penance – but none of them denied that such was the right and role of the Church and its clergy . The fathers have heard confessions. They pronounced absolution.
- A church whose members make the sign of the cross. At the end of the second century, Tertullian spoke of the sign as if it were the mark of ordinary, everyday Christian life. Among the beautiful qualities of his wife, he mentioned the way she made the sign of the cross at night.
- A church whose members bless themselves with holy water. The “prayer book” of Saint Serapion of Egypt (4th century) includes a blessing for holy water. Eusebius (late 3rd century) describes the familiar baptismal font at the entrance to a church.
- A church with an established sacramental hierarchy. Saint Ignatius of Antioch shows us that as the first century passes into the second, the order of the Church was already well established everywhere. While writing letters to various churches, he assumed that each church was governed by bishops, priests, and deacons. He didn’t explain it. He did not argue for it. He just assumed it. At the turn of the following century, Clement of Alexandria also presented this order as traditional – an imitation of the hierarchy of angels in heaven.
- A church that venerates the saints. This can be seen in the graffiti on the walls of the Roman catacombs. It is found in the art of Fayoum cemeteries in Egypt. It appears in many lamps, medals and signet rings. Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Augustine wrote many homilies on the lives of saints. The oldest liturgies invoke their intercession. This is especially true for the Virgin Mary, whose prayers are included in the canonical collections from the beginning of the third century.
- A church that prays for the dead. In the 100s, devotional literature described votive masses celebrated at the edge of tombs. Early tombstones in Christian Rome ask for prayers for the deceased. The prison diary of Saint Perpetua (North Africa, early 3rd century) includes a vision of purgatory — the existence of which is explained theologically by Origen (Egypt, 3rd century). At the end of the 100s, Tertullian describes the prayer for the dead as an already ancient practice.
- A church with a distinctive sexual ethic and clear ideas about marriage and family. Early Christians were almost alone in refusing to recognize divorce, engage in homosexual activity, induce or perform abortion, or use contraception. Their view of sex as sacred made them the laughingstock of the pagan world, where sex was cheap and degrading and people were, therefore, miserable.
It’s only a glimpse of the early Church, but it’s enough to make it recognizable as Catholic. Nor did the fathers view their lives as being in any way opposed to Scripture. Scripture and tradition co-existed in harmony because they were received from the same apostles. The New Testament shows us the apostles writing letters, certainly, but also observing rites, customs and disciplines.
Furthermore, the Church of the Apostles pre-dates the New Testament and shows us that authority for Christians does not rest simply in Scripture.
“Above all, you must understand this: no prophecy of Scripture can be interpreted in a personal way” (2 P 1, 20). For the fathers, the interpretation belonged to the Church and its bishops. Saint Polycarp of Smyrna learned this lesson well from his master, the Apostle John. In the middle of the second century, he wrote: “He who twists the oracles of the Lord according to his own perverse inclinations…is the firstborn of Satan. The great disciple of Polycarp and Doctor of the Church, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, made it one of the founding principles of his multi-volume work, “Against Heresies”.
Saint John Henry Newman knew that, standing apart from the Catholic Church, he was not standing on the side of the Church Fathers, but rather on the side of heretics. So he returned home, and his way – the way of the fathers – has since been traveled by many non-Catholics.
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