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Who are the Fathers of the Church?

The Fathers of the Church teach us the essential reality of Catholicism. They are windows to the early centuries of Christianity, witnesses privileged by their historical, and in some cases personal, proximity to Jesus and the apostles. These men are called “Fathers” because they gave life to subsequent generations of believers by transmitting the message of salvation received from the apostles. The Fathers filled roles of headship, especially spiritual headship, within the family of the church. Many were bishops and almost all were ordained. They were distinguished thinkers and teachers who, by the spiritual, intellectual and pastoral legacy contained in their writings, shaped the life of the church and the development of Christian doctrine. The Fathers are distinguished by four criteria.

First, the Fathers are orthodox. Orthodox, derived from the Greek terms for sound judgment, means that a Father’s thought and teaching are characterized overall by correspondence with the authoritative teaching of the church’s magisterium. While individual Fathers are reliable guides in faith and morals, they are not infallible and sometimes they disagreed. However, the Council of Trent taught infallibly in 1546 that “No one may dare to interpret Scripture in a way contrary to the unanimous consensus of the Fathers.” The church Fathers were of one mind, for example, that God is triune, that Jesus is one person who is truly God and truly man, that material creation is good, that salvation includes the restoration of bodily life, and that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist.

The second criterion is holiness. This may be thought of as the practical complement to orthodoxy — the Fathers practiced what they preached. While most of the church Fathers are canonized saints, formal canonization is not necessary, and holiness does not mean that the Fathers had no rough edges. It does mean that the Fathers’ lives were characterized by extraordinary love for God and neighbor. Among the Fathers, there is a marvelous network of saints who knew saints. St. Polycarp was friends with St. John the Apostle and St. Ignatius. Later, St. Irenaeus recalls sitting in St. Polycarp’s house as a boy, listening to him teach and relate his dealings with St. John. St. Basil, who in addition to his theological brilliance and administrative acumen, undertook an enormous project of building hospitals and centers to care for the poor, was surrounded in his upbringing by saints. His mother, two brothers, sister, grandmother, and friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, were all canonized. This ought not to surprise us. In every age, the faith is transmitted from person to person, within the context of ordinary relationships.

The third criterion is ecclesiastical approbation. While there is no formal process to recognize an individual as a Father (as there is for canonizing saints), the individual must have the approval and regard of the church. This may be implicit, but is discernable from “ecclesiastical discussions and documents,” as one patrologist (someone who studies the writings of the Fathers) relates.  While there is no precise, universally agreed-upon list of church Fathers, there is general consensus on around a hundred individuals who represent a wide range of times, places, cultures and languages. Despite their diversity, the Fathers express a remarkable unity of faith.

The fourth criterion is antiquity. The Fathers of the church lived during the earliest period of Christianity, which ended in the eighth century with the deaths of St. Bede the Venerable and St. John Damascene. Although most of the Fathers lived more than a millennium and a half ago, it is amazing how relevant their writings are to Christian life today. The experience of reading St. Augustine’s “Confessions” or St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on marriage and family life is like reading a contemporary author. The essential human condition remains unchanged, and the truth that the Fathers proclaimed is the same yesterday, today and forever. The important thing to see is that, regardless of how long ago they lived, what the Fathers did is a task for us today: to be links of the living chain of faith — the Catholic tradition — that stretches back to Jesus and the apostles.

Matava is associate professor and dean of Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.

Find out more


Go to graduate.christendom.edu/churchfathers.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019