I studied theology in Rome during the heady days of Vatican II (1962-5). At the Gregorian University, which I attended, I was privileged to have some world-renowned professors – men like Bernard Lonergan, Francis Sullivan, and René Latourelle. Their courses were still given in Latin, and, for the most part, these brilliant thinkers read boringly from their own manuals. But though the pedagogy may have been wanting, the content was substantive.
Yet of all the courses taken over four years, the one that has been most influential upon me personally, and upon my ongoing theological reflection, was offered by a Patristics scholar by the name of Antonio Orbe, S.J. The semester I took the course, Father Orbe lectured on Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, the second-century father of the Church. Irenaeus has been a guide and inspiration ever since.
Though Irenaeus died about 202 AD (possibly martyred) as bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern France), he was originally from Smyrna in Asia Minor. He himself tells us that, as a youth, he sat at the feet of Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna, who himself had known “John who had seen the Lord.” Thus Irenaeus represents in his person and writings the apostolic tradition of the Churches of both East and West. He brought this tradition to bear in his major work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). There he refutes the false views of those claiming a special revealed knowledge (particularly the Gnostics), not present in the public faith of the Church.
John Behr, the Patristics scholar and Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, writes in the conclusion of his recent important study, Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity: “It would be hard to overstate the importance of Irenaeus of Lyons, both with respect to what came before him and for the history of theological reflection and identity thereafter.”
In the 1960s and 70s, words quoted from Irenaeus often appeared anonymously on felt banners in churches. The intent seemed to be to coax those attending Mass to “feel good” about themselves. Hence the banners proclaimed: “The Glory of God is Man Fully Alive!” (“Gloria enim Dei vivens homo.”) You may still come upon the sentiment today, rendered now, of course, in appropriately inclusive language.
In those less than halcyon years, however, I don’t recall ever having seen the second part of Irenaeus’s sentence. Perhaps it did not fit the flimsy banners or the anthropocentric Zeitgeist. In any case, the second part, the climax of the affirmation, reads: “but the life of man is the vision of God” (“Vita autem hominis visio Dei.”) The human person can only find true fulfillment in union with its Creator and Redeemer.
For Irenaeus, it is essential to keep Creator and Redeemer, old covenant and new, together. For those against whom he was writing sought to sunder them. Those “gnostic” enlightened ones attributed the material creation to the wretched god of the Hebrew Scriptures, and extolled the true God who liberates the divine spark from the messiness of matter and history.
Irenaeus not only insisted upon the unity of God’s creative and redemptive work, he celebrated its culmination in the coming of Christ who recapitulated (a favorite Irenaean insight and theme) all people and history in himself. Christ who is present in the Church is not absent from creation and history.
So what, then, his opponents charged, is new about Christianity? What did Christ bring that makes a real difference? And Irenaeus, in a sentence that never ceases to thrill and inspire me, responds: himself! “Christ brought all newness by bringing himself” (“Omnem novitatem attulit, semetipsum afferens”).
This confession and conviction of Irenaeus seem also to thrill and inspire Pope Francis. Towards the very beginning of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope quotes this very sentence of Irenaeus and comments further: “With this newness Christ is always able to renew our lives and our communities, and even if the Christian message has experienced periods of darkness and ecclesial weakness, it will never grow old.”
The Jubilee Year of Mercy, just begun, is a time of grace to implore the Lord to renew us and our communities through a new adhesion to Jesus Christ, indeed, a renewed love for Jesus Christ. For, as Francis insists, “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to greater love of him.” And, he pointedly asks: “What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (Evangelii Gaudium, 64)
As Pope Francis never tires of preaching: Christ is at the Center, and we must be de-centered from self so as to be re-centered in him. Advent is a time of de-centering and re-centering, a holy season of love renewed. That is why John the Baptist figures so prominently in Advent: “He must increase, I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30)
The Christian paradox, of course, is that only in such “decreasing” do we become “fully alive.”