June 27, 2017

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Bishop and Martyr

Saint Irenaeus

June 28th, the Church observes the memorial of Saint Irenaeus, the 2nd century Father of the Church whose brilliant theology refuted heresy, affirmed the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and helped to establish the Scriptural canon. Born in Asia Minor around the year 130, he studied with the great saint, Polycarp of Smyrna, who was himself formed in the faith by the Apostle John. Thus, Irenaeus was steeped in both Scripture and the apostolic tradition, a background that prepared him thoroughly for the ministry he would eventually undertake.

Irenaeus became a priest and later, bishop of the Church of Lyons, province of Gaul (present-day France) in 177, during the persecutions of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His greatest struggle, however, would not be against Rome, but against the heresy known as Gnosticism, which denied Christ’s humanity and promoted instead "secret knowledge" as key to salvation. His five-volume work, Against Heresies, effectively ended the Gnostic movement and won him praise as the Church’s first systematic theologian who laid out the Church’s doctrinal tradition.

Numerous times, Irenaeus exposed himself to martyrdom by his zeal and tireless devotion, but God was reserving that crown for him twenty-five years later. When Saint Pothinus had glorified God by his splendid martyr’s death in the year 177, Irenaeus was chosen to be the second bishop of Lyons. The Church’s persecutors believed Christianity had been stifled in Lyons, and ceased their efforts there.

As prelate, Irenaeus took advantage of this lowering of hostilities to evangelize the population. By his preaching, he would convert almost the entire country to the Faith. The Christians of Lyons became models by their deep devotion, their estrangement from all ambition, their poverty, chastity and temperance, and in this way confounded many adversaries of their religion. The people of Lyons revered Irenaeus for his holiness, fidelity, courage and excellent administration.

Ever the peacemaker, towards the end of his life, Irenaeus convinced Pope Victor I to lift the ban of excommunication on the Quartodecimans, a Christian group who celebrated Easter on a different day than did the rest of the Church. Saint Irenaeus suffered martyrdom in Lyons amid renewed persecution around the year 202. O God, who called the Bishop Saint Irenaeus to confirm true doctrine and the peace of the Church, grant, we pray, through his intercession, that, being renewed in our faith, we may always be intent on fostering unity and concord.

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