Pop Go The Fathers
by Mike Aquilina
My father, God rest his soul, had a stock response when people asked him what his youngest son did for a living. “He’s got quite a racket,” Pop would say. “Mike finds authors who’ve been dead so long they can’t collect royalties. Then he republishes their work under his name.”
Pop was talking about my books on the Church Fathers—the ancient Christian authors who caught my attention some years back and never let it go.
He was joking, of course. Even with cataracts and Coke-bottle glasses, he saw enough of my life to conclude that no one ever got rich in my “racket.” But if you’ve read the Fathers, you know they’re worth a little sacrifice.
And if you know they’re worth it, then this is the month you should thank God that you know it. Because it wasn’t always as easy to know the Fathers as it is today.
A bit of history is in order—and then we can sing our “Te Deum” together at the end of the column.
Here’s a surprise. We have the Protestant Reformation to thank for launching the field of patrology, the study of the Fathers as we know it today. The reformers wanted nothing so much as to present their innovations as retrievals—a return to Christian roots, a recovery of long-lost traditions—rather than a trashing of received Tradition. In any event, the necessary work of self-justification sent the early reformers in search of the primitive Christian writings.
It was a Protestant who coined the term “patrology.” That was the title of a book by Johannes Gerhard, posthumously published in 1653. Gerhard had hoped to demonstrate that the practice of the Catholic Church had decayed since the time of the early Christians.
Catholics, however, eagerly took up the challenge of publishing and interpreting the ancient texts. And why not? Far from revealing a proto-Protestant Christianity, the Fathers described a Church that was richly sacramental, Marian, hierarchical, Eucharistic, priestly, monk-loving, pilgrimage-making, and celebratory of celibacy.
Appreciation for the Fathers grew—among both Protestants and Catholics—over the next three centuries. The Anglican Oxford Movement grew out of these early- Church studies, and set many English converts on the road to Rome. Patristic scholars, most notably John Henry Newman, saw the clear continuity of the patristic Church with the beliefs and practices of modern Catholics. Over time, many other great Protestant patristic scholars went the way of Newman—or, rather, the way of the Fathers.
This torrent of interest in the Fathers eventually earned a name with capital letters: the Patristic Movement. With two other movements, the Biblical Movement and the Liturgical Movement, it defined the twentieth-century trend of Catholic ressourcement, the “return to the sources.”
And it all came to full flower in the Second Vatican Council, most especially in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, whose anniversary we celebrate this month: “The words of the holy Fathers witness to the presence of . . . living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church” (DV, no. 8). The Fathers witness to the canon, the creeds, and the teaching Church, all of which are indispensable to a Christian’s sure and steady grasp of Scripture. For this reason, Dei Verbum “encourages the study of the holy Fathers of both East and West” (DV, no. 23). And the document practices what it preaches, citing as authorities many of the great Fathers: Irenaeus, Cyprian, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine.
It is because of this conciliar endorsement that we received a catechism so rich in the Fathers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the Fathers among its “principal sources, after the Bible but before the liturgy (Catechism, no. 11; see also no. 688).
The last generation has also witnessed an explosion of publishing in patrology. There are currently three major series of the Fathers in print in English! There are two series that collect the Fathers’ abundant commentaries on each of the books of the Bible. And there are countless smaller series, anthologies, and studies.
My four small books are a drop in that glorious bucket. My father was right: It’s quite a racket. And for that we thank the God of our Fathers! In the words of one of the greatest Fathers: “Te deum laudamus . . .”
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