Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Father of the Church
The saint of the day for June 28th is St. Irenaeus (c.130 – c.200), Bishop of Lyons (France) and Father of the Church.
Irenaeus was born in Smyrna (modern-day Turkey), although he later settled in Rome. He was well-educated and was influenced by men who knew the Apostles, especially St. Polycarp, who had been a student of St. John the evangelist.
Irenaeus served as a priest of the Church of Lyons during the Christian persecution under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the pagan Roman emperor (161–180). Many of the clergy from Lyons were imprisoned for their faith. In 177, he journeyed to Rome carrying a letter to Pope St. Eleutherius, urging him to deal with the heresy of Montanism, which was now flourishing in the East. While Irenaeus was in Rome, a massacre occurred in Lyons. A persecution broke out, and some of the leaders of the Lyons church were imprisoned, while others suffered martyrdom. Thus, he did not share in the martyrdom of his fellow Christians.
When he returned to France, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Saint Pothinus and became the second Bishop of Lyons in 178. As bishop, he divided his activities between the duties of a pastor and of a missionary. A prolific writer, he is known for his vigorous defense of the faith against Gnosticism, the doctrine of salvation based on a secret knowledge, which was the prevalent heresy of the time. The Gnostics professed that they alone possessed a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, while Irenaeus maintained that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles and that the bishops provided the only reliable guide to the interpretation of Scripture.
The exact date of his death is unknown. The date is usually given as about the year 203. According to a late and doubtful tradition, he suffered martyrdom under Septimius Severus. He was buried under the Church of Saint John in Lyon, which was later renamed St Irenaeus. In 1562, his tomb and his remains were completely destroyed by the Huguenots (the French Protestants).
Irenaeus was the first great Catholic theologian and his most significant work is Against Heresies or Adversus Haereses, (c.180). It is a detailed attack on Gnosticism, which was then a serious threat to the Church. As a theologian, he emphasized the traditional elements in the Church, especially the episcopate, Scripture, and tradition.
“We have learned the plan of our salvation entirely from the men through whom the Gospel came to us. At first they proclaimed it abroad; then later, by the will of God, they wrote it down for us in the Scriptures to be the foundation and pillar of our faith….”
— St. Irenaeus in Against Heresies