Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Doctor of the Church


From our permanent special correspondent

Saint, theologian, second bishop of the Church of Lyon. And now doctor of the universal Church. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon was officially declared, Friday January 21, doctor of the Church, with the title of “doctor unitatis”, “doctor of unity”. A rare event in the Catholic Church: Irenaeus is the 37and to bear this title, created by the popes at the end of the 13thand century, to point out saints being at the origin of a “eminent doctrine”.

Saint Irenaeus, who died around the year 201, is considered the first great theologian of the West. Born in Asia Minor, in his youth he was a disciple of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, reputed to have been himself close to the apostle Saint John. He was in particular one of the most virulent defenders of dogma in the face of Gnostic doctrines, which experienced a great development at the end of the IIand century. His works are gathered in a treatise entitled, Against heresies. Denunciation and refutation of gnosis in the name of a liar.

This fight against gnosis, in fact, draws a vision of man and of the world, created by God, explains in substance Marie-Laure Chaieb, professor of patristic theology at the faculty of theology of the Catholic University of Lyon (UcLy). This researcher, who has been working on the writings of Saint Irenaeus for twenty years, describes a thought whose resonance is surprisingly contemporary. “He takes a very positive look at creation because it was willed by God. From this he derives real benevolence., she explains, emphasizing that Irenaeus has nothing to do with a “blissful optimist”. “He was opposed to people, the Gnostics, who developed a dualistic vision, and systematically discredited the world, the culture, the man, affirming that only some could be saved”, she continues.

“Today, the Gnostic way of thinking is quite present in our world, which promotes binary oppositions, adds Brother Elie Ayroulet, head of the master’s degree in patristic theology at UcLy. And in writing on gnosis, Irenaeus does not situate himself as an opponent of gnosis, but rather as one who writes in favor of the faithful whom he proposes to enlighten. »

This member of the community of monks and nuns of Saint Joseph coordinated the position, 500-page report, on which seven people worked for several years, sent to Rome at the end of October. It was Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, then Archbishop of Lyon, who, in 2017, asked the Pope to proclaim Saint Irenaeus, Doctor of the Church. In October 2021, Pope Francis announced to a group of Catholic and Orthodox theologians his intention to do so.

Because if the saint from Lyon was also promoted “doctor of unity” by François, it is because he constitutes a link between East and West. “He came from Smyrna to Lugdunum via Rome. Then his works went back to the East », explains Brother Elie Ayroulet. In Lyon, where his tomb is located, “Bishops and Eastern patriarchs passing through often ask to go and pray at the church of Saint-Irénée”, where rests the one who is now Doctor of the Church.

“Despite the tensions between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople, this is very good news for all Orthodoxy,welcomes for his part the Orthodox historian Antoine Arjakovsky. Irenaeus is a father of the Eastern Church and the founder of a universal Christian doctrine. That this news arrives during the week of unity is also a strong encouragement to find oneself on the ancient and living foundations laid by Saint Irenaeus. »

This dimension of unity, through the figure of a theologian who developed his doctrine in the very first times of the Church, is moreover particularly highlighted in Rome, where the decree of recognition of Irenaeus was signed by the pope during the week of Christian unity. “He was a spiritual and theological bridge between Christians of the East and West”, can we read in the decree signed by François. “His name, Irenaeus, expresses that peace which comes from the Lord and reconciles and which restores unity”, he writes again.

“His name, Irenaeus, bears the imprint of the word peace”, François also recalled in October. We know that the Lord’s peace is not a “negotiated” peace, the fruit of agreements to protect interests, but a peace that reconciles, that restores unity. »


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