When schisms loom in the Church, look to St. Irenaeus

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St. Irenaeus of Lyon is pictured in a stained-glass window at the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate in Guelph, Ontario. (CNS photo/The Crosiers)

Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr

Feast day: June 28

Doctor of the Church, bishop and apologist, St. Irenaeus was a foremost defender of the Catholic faith in the second century whose witness to the truth has protected what we believe today. Born to Greek parents in a Christian family in Smyrna, Turkey, he became a disciple of St. Polycarp, who had been a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. As bishop of Lyon, St. Irenaeus refuted a heretical teaching known as Gnosticism, which claimed that the Church was only symbolic and that only a chosen few could be saved by receiving special knowledge about God. Through his knowledge of Apostolic writings and his command of sacred Scripture, St. Irenaeus preserved the unity of the Christian faith by defending the Magisterium and laid down the foundation of Christian theology through one of his major works, “Against Heresies,” consisting of five books.

“The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God,” he wrote.

These were some of the words used by St. Irenaeus to defend the dignity of man and the value of each person in the eyes of God. With a sharp awareness of all that was passed down by the apostles, St. Irenaeus was able to defend the personhood of everyone in relationship with God and the truth that no disciple of Jesus is an isolated being. He fought those who adapted parts of Scripture to their own beliefs contrary to there being one God in three Persons. He quoted Scripture that God willed all men to be saved and particularly discussed the First Letter of St. John as evidence of the reciprocity of God’s love with mankind.

With his knowledge of Church history, St. Irenaeus defended the Church as one Faith and one house, as if having one soul. Through the facts of apostolic succession and beginning with St. Peter, he explained the handing on of what Christ had taught through the popes and the many bishops despite dissimilar languages in use throughout the world. He defended the validity of the books of the Old Testament, which the gnostics denied. Through his defense, the canon containing two books of sacred Scripture was solidified. The basic development of the creed and the authority of the episcopal office can be traced back to the writings of St. Irenaeus.

Noted for his missionary zeal and willingness to learn the languages of those he evangelized, St. Irenaeus worked for peace and unity in the Church as he also was adamant that differences in external matters, such as festival dates, were not worth disputing. Furthermore, he authored a second major work, “The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” which was not written to refute heretics but to confirm the faithful in Christian doctrine as foretold in Old Testament prophecies. This second major work was likely intended as a means of instruction for catechumens. Having replaced the bishop of Lyon who was martyred, St. Irenaeus was martyred himself in a successive persecution.


Dear Lord, thank you for such vibrant souls like St. Irenaeus, who clearly protected the deposit of faith we have today. May I also keep shining the light of the fullness of your Truth as I discuss the faith with those around me.


O God, who called the Bishop St. Irenaeus
to confirm true doctrine and the peace of the Church,
grant, we pray, through his intercession,
that, being renewed in faith and charity,
we may always be intent on fostering unity and concord.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.

Maryella Hierholzer

Maryella Hierholzer is a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and did graduate work at Georgetown University. After concluding a career in the Washington area, she is now retired in Indiana where she is a teacher of adult and youth faith formation at her parish. She is also a volunteer at Catholic Charities in Fort Wayne.