“The Fathers Made Me a Catholic”

In his treatise “Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered,” Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) wrote about the poignant journey that brought him into the Catholic Church. Part of that pilgrimage of faith was through the high country of patristics — the field of study that focuses on the Fathers of the Church, both East and West. At the time he was studying his way into the Church, Newman turned to the Fathers with a clear sense of perturbation over where it might lead. He wrote: “I recollect well what an outcast I seemed to myself, when I took down from the shelves of my library the volumes of St. Athanasius or St. Basil, and set myself to study them; and how, on the contrary, when at length I was brought into the Catholic Communion, I kissed them with delight, with a feeling that in them I had more than all I had lost.... The Fathers made me a Catholic.”

Many converts since Newman have decided to “swim the Tiber” because of the Church Fathers. When we see the term, of course, we are speaking of the leaders of the early Church who played so monumental a role in the defense and explanation of the Faith. They are honored with the title because of the holiness of their lives, the orthodoxy of their teachings and the recognition of their merits by the Church. The so-called Age of the Fathers also has a specific time frame in the West and the East. In the West, it dates from the first days of the Church to the passing of St. Isidore of Seville in 636. St. Isidore is thus considered the last of the Western Fathers. In the East, the age covers until the death of the last Eastern Father, St. John Damascene, in 749. These astounding saints and theologians fought for the Church against the dreadful heresies that were propagated from the fourth through the sixth centuries, explained her most vital teachings and left a treasury of knowledge and faith that we are still exploring today. Such is the genius of the Fathers that so many ills in Christianity today — as in Newman’s time — can find their antidote in the writings, hymns, homilies, poems and letters of Augustine, Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch, Gregory of Nyssa, Polycarp, Pope Leo I and many others. With that, I am delighted to welcome back to these pages of TCA Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio with the first of a two-part study of the Fathers (Pages 6-8). It is ideal summer reading for all of us, especially as we head into a politically charged autumn filled with challenges to the conscience and a just and ordered society.

Matthew Bunson, D.Min., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at mbunson@osv.com.