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Saint Irenaeus

Bishop and Martyr.  

Irenaeus was one of the instructors of the Fathers of the Church; but because of his title of Martyr, he is not officially given the title of Doctor. He was born in Pro-consular Asia, probably about 125, in the region of Smyrna, amongst Christians who had personal acquaintance with the Apostles themselves. He received a liberal education, for his writings shew not only a knowledge of the Scriptures, but also of secular philosophy and literature. Moreover, he was taught by men who had sat at the feet of the Apostles themselves. For example, Saint Polycarp was his spiritual father; and in after life Irenaeus declared that he could recall every detail concerning this holy Bishop of Smyrna, even to the sound of his voice, and the very words he used, as the blessed man spoke of his intercourse with Saint John the Evangelist, and others who had seen our Lord. In those days ships plied constantly from the ports of Asia Minor to Marseilles, and thence up the Rhone River to Lyons; which, in consequence, became the chief mart of western Europe, and the most populous city of Gaul, with a resident colony of Oriental Christians having their own bishop and priests. And to this Church of Lyons Irenaeus came, and there served as a priest under the Bishop Saint Pothinus.

In 177 Irenaeus was sent to Rome by his fellow-Christians in Gaul, to ask Pope Saint Eleutherius to deal gently with their brethren in Phrygia who were infected with the Montanist heresy. They commended Irenaeus as one full of courage, but also the lover of peace which his name signified, and therefore as a man fit to represent them in the matter. At that time a dire persecution had broken out in Lyons, and such Confessors of the Faith, in imminent danger of death, had the right, according to the custom of the time, to ask for pardon for others in virtue of their own sufferings which they were offering to God in union with Christ's death for all. The persecution was so violent and inhuman that many died quickly from their burns and wounds, whilst others lived on through unspeakable tortures before death released them therefrom; among whom was the holy Bishop Pothinus at the age of ninety, and the holy slave-girl Blandina who became the spiritual mother of them all in sustaining their courage. These things are described in a letter, which is one of the chief treasures of Christian literature, addressed by the survivors to their brethren in Asia Minor, and saith: They offered to the Father a single wreath, but it was woven of divers colours of flowers of all kinds of martyrdom.

Irenaeus, on his return to the devastated Church, was consecrated Bishop thereof, and his episcopate was chiefly devoted to healing Christian wounds, specially those which had been made by heresy. He set himself the task of exposing the strange errors of Gnosticism and other false doctrines, in his treatise against heresies, in five books which were widely circulated, and were a bulwark to the Faith in his day, and remain to us as a witness to the unchanging teaching of Catholicism from the post-apostolic period until now. Some fourteen years after his mission to Pope Saint Eleutherius he again acted as a mediator between the Holy See and the Christians in Asia Minor. The latter refused to keep Easter on the Western date, and were excommunicated by Pope Saint Victor I. Irenaeus wrote this Pope, asking him to raise the ban on these brethren, who were but following their old tradition; and he called to mind that in former years, Pope Saint Anicetus and Bishop Saint Polycarp had agreed to disagree in this matter, but to remain in communion with each other. Not many years after Irenaeus thus had succeeded in restoring peace and unity between Rome and Asia Minor, he went to his reward, probably in 202. He is generally given the title Martyr, although it is not certain that he died by violence. His holy body was enshrined in a crypt under the altar of his church in Lyons, the relicks whereof were desecrated and destroyed by the Calvinist in 1562. In 1922 his feast began to be kept by all the West, being finally fixed on the day before the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.


O GOD, who didst bestow upon blessed Irenaeus thy Martyr and Bishop grace to overcome false doctrine by the teaching of the truth, and to stablish thy Church in peace and prosperity: we beseech thee, that thou wouldest give thy people constancy in thy true religion; and grant us thy peace all the days of our life. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Anglican Breviary, Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation, Inc., New York, 1955, pages 1272-1273

Additional Information:

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