Saint Irenaeus

Tagbha carol roth

“We are all called to be holy. ‘Each in his or her own way,’” Pope Francis says in his exhortation “ Gaudete et exultate”.  We’re all different; saints are different too.

Today, the church remembers St. Irenaeus,  yesterday was the memorial of St. Cyril of Alexandria. You can’t find two people, two saints, so different. Cyril was a the forceful, confrontative bishop of Alexandria; Irenaeus, as his name suggests, was a fair man who worked tirelessly for peace.

Many years ago I took a course on Gnosticism in Rome under Fr. Antonio Orbe, SJ, an expert on the subject. Gnosticism was an early heresy that threatened Christianity in the 2nd century and afterwards most of its writings were destroyed. In the last century a large cache of those writings buried in the sands of Egypt was discovered and Father Orbe was just back after studying them. Until then, the Gnostic teachings  were known mostly through the writings of St. Irenaeus, whom we honor today in our liturgy,

I remember an observation Fr. Orbe made about St.Irenaeus. He said that, as he compared the writings, he was struck how accurately and fairly Irenaeus reported what the gnostics taught, not distorting anything they said or omitting their ideas. He was very fair and respectful. From what we know of Irenaeus, that’s what he was, fair minded and respectful to friend and foe alike. He was a peace-maker. Cyril of Alexandria had a different kind of personality. He would have left those writings buried in the sands of Egypt.

Irenaeus is not a bad example for today when hot words and smear attacks, distortions and lies dominate so much communication. Irenaeus was a peace-maker. Peace makers don’t destroy, they heal and unite. That’s why they’re called blessed.

Irenaeus also had a deep respect for creation. Some scholars today say the ancient gnostics were broadminded, creative people–rather like themselves–  more progressive than the plodding, conservative people of the “great church”– a term Irenaeus used to call it.

In fact, the gnostics made the world smaller than it is, because they made much of the world evil, only some of it meant anything at all. Forget about the rest of it.

All creation is God’s, Irenaeus replied. “With God, there is nothing without purpose, nothing without its meaning or reason.” All creation is charged with the glory of God.

Irenaeus pointed to the Eucharist as a sign of this. Bread and wine represent all creation. God comes to us through these earthly signs. We go to God through them.

“God keeps calling us to what is primary by what is secondary, that is, through things of time to things of eternity, through things of the flesh to things of the spirit, through earthly things to heavenly things.”

Moses struck the rock and water comes out. People drank and were refreshed, but something more happened–they knew through the water, though dimly, the generous God who slaked their thirst.

We should not demean creation, Ireneaus taught. That’s also the message of Pope Francis in “Laudato si.”

4 thoughts on “Saint Irenaeus

  1. Isabel Nepomuceno

    Thanks for your homily on creation…bundled up from St. Irenaeus (Eucharist), Moses, to Laudato si. I am always in awe at God’s creation hence I do my little part in conserving it. Also I think our trip to Israel included Tabgha but I don’t remember this particular mosaic. Thanks for the picture… beautiful.


  2. cenaclemary12

    Echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins: The world is charged with the glory of God. Where was this photo taken? What does the mound of ? represent?
    Tabgha? May we blessed with Ireaneus-like peacemakers today!


  3. vhoagland Post author

    Yes, Tabgha. The loaves and the fish. Beautiful church near the Sea of Galilee and the seven springs that flow into it. Creation sings there.


  4. Gloria

    I also heard echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and also wondered what the
    mound under the altar represents. “Blessed are the peacemakers!”


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