“We are all called to be holy. ‘Each in his or her own way,’” Pope Francis says in his exhortation “ Gaudete et exultate”. We’re all different; saints are different too.
Today, the church remembers St. Irenaeus, yesterday we remembered St. Cyril of Alexandria. Two different people, two different saints.. Cyril was a forceful, confrontative bishop of Alexandria; Irenaeus, as his name suggests, was a fair man and a peacemaker.
I learned about Irenaeus many years ago in a course on Gnosticism in Rome under Fr. Antonio Orbe, SJ, an expert on the subject. Gnosticism threatened Christianity in the 2nd century; afterwards most of its writings were destroyed. A large cache of its writings buried in the sands of Egypt had been recently unearthed and Father Orbe was just back after studying them. Until then, the Gnostic teachings were known mostly through the writings of St. Irenaeus, whom we honor today.,
Fr. Orbe observed that as he compared the gnostic writings to Irenaeus’ reports of them he was struck how accurately and fairly Irenaeus described them,, not distorting anything they said or omitting their ideas. He was fair and respectful. Irenaeus was fair minded and respectful to friend and foe alike. He was a peace-maker. Cyril of Alexandria was different. He would have left those writings buried in the sands of Egypt.
Irenaeus is not a bad example for today when hot words and smear attacks, distortions and lies dominate so much communication. Peace makers like him don’t destroy, they heal and unite. That’s why they’re called blessed. He was named the 37th Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis in 2022, who said he was a “Doctor of Church Unity.”
Irenaeus also had a deep respect for creation. Some scholars today insist that the ancient gnostics were broadminded, creative people–rather like themselves– more progressive than the plodding, conservative people of the “great church”– a term Irenaeus used..
In fact, the gnostics made the world smaller than it is, because they made much of the world evil, only some of it meant anything at all. Forget about the rest of it.
All creation is God’s, Irenaeus wrote. “With God, there is nothing without purpose, nothing without its meaning or reason.” All creation is charged with the glory of God.
Irenaeus saw the Eucharist as a sign of this. Bread and wine represent all creation. God comes to us through these earthly signs. We go to God through them.
“God keeps calling us to what is primary by what is secondary, that is, through things of time to things of eternity, through things of the flesh to things of the spirit, through earthly things to heavenly things.”
We should not demean creation, Ireneaus taught. That’s also the message of Pope Francis in “Laudato si.”