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The following is an excerpt from:

The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Patristic Age

The Fathers of the Church were those saintly writers of the early centuries whom the Church recognizes as her special defenders of orthodoxy. And the Patristic Age is the period during which they lived.

It is generally held that the last of the Western Fathers (Latin) was St. Bede the Venerable (673-735), and the last of the Eastern Fathers (Greek) was St. John Damascene (675-749).

Writers like St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Irenaeus are, of course, Fathers of the Church. Nevertheless, it seemed wiser, for the purpose of this Lifetime Reading Plan, to distinguish some of the early Fathers who were outstanding witnesses to the faith in time of persecution. The authors here included are only ten out of an estimated ninety writers who qualify by their antiquity, orthodoxy, sanctity, and approval by the Church as belonging to the Patristic Age.

Why these ten? Mainly because their writings have been the most influential in shaping the minds and hearts of Christian believers. Every one of these ten has so deeply inspired future generations that he would qualify as father in spirit not only of Christian but of all human civilization.

7. Eusebius

Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339), the "father of Church history," had a checkered career. Baptized as an adult, he entered the ranks of the clergy and from his earliest days in the priesthood had an ardent desire for knowledge.

His greatest ambition was to enrich the library in Caesarea with new manuscripts. These provided him with the sources he later used to write his several histories. He was a close friend of St. Pamphilus, with whom he was imprisoned before Pamphilus' martyrdom. While in prison, the two composed the famous Apology for Origen.

After Pamphilus' death, Eusebius wrote his biography in three volumes. So devoted was Eusebius to his martyred friend that he began to call himself Eusebius Pamphili. Imprisonment and a narrow escape from death for his faith characterized Eusebius' years up to the Church's liberation under Constantine.

No sooner was the Church given political liberty than there arose the Arian heresy, which denied that Christ was truly divine. Throughout the Council of Nicea (325) and afterward, Eusebius would not accept the term homoousios, which Nicea used to define Christ as one in being with the Father. Although Eusebius signed the document of Nicea, as drawn up by the Pope's delegate, Hosius, he soon retracted it. In fact, he became one of the chief opponents of St. Athanasius, the staunch defender of the Council of Nicea. Thus, in 335 he was present at the "brigandage of Tyre," which condemned Athanasius. When Eusebius later wrote an account of the rebel meeting of bishops at Tyre, he did not even mention the name of Athanasius.

Some explanation is necessary for including Eusebius in the Catholic Reading Plan. He was very learned, a prolific writer, and a successful administrator as bishop, but he was also weak in character. Two aspects of this weakness that were especially grave were his unqualified admiration for Emperor Constantine and his uncontrolled desire to please his fellow bishops who would not accept the unqualified teaching of Nicea about the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Yet, Eusebius deserves to be included in this study of great Catholic writers. He was the pioneer Church historian of Christianity. His histories have proved substantially accurate. And he exemplifies the not uncommon failing of some Catholic prelates in the Church's history - namely, an absence of strength of mind and steadfastness of conscience in proportion to their vast erudition.

The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius consists of ten books, composed over a period of about fifteen years. Were it not for this work of Eusebius, much of the first three centuries of the Church would be almost unknown to us. Its chief merit lies in the fact that it is drawn from reliable sources, sources that are often directly quoted by the author. Together with a mass of factual data, it contains numerous documents drawn from the state archives and extracts from other authors. Moreover, Eusebius' sincerity can hardly be questioned, even though his misplaced sympathies sometimes led him to make certain omissions. The great number of extracts also makes the work appear more of a collection than a history. These deficiencies, however, do not detract from Eusebius' claim to the title "the Christian Herodotus."

The following passage from one of Eusebius' orations before Emperor Constantine reveals the depth of his Christian faith. This is all the more remarkable because Constantine remained a catechumen all his life and was not baptized until shortly before he died.

The whole length of the day would fail me, my Emperor, if I should try to collect and combine into one account the manifest examples of Our Savior's divine power that are evident from effects still visible, since no one who ever lived either among Greeks or among barbarians ever exhibited such power of divine ability as has Our Own Savior. But why do I speak just of men, when of those who were called gods by all the nations not a one has manifested such a nature on this earth. If so, let anyone so inclined reveal him; let any philosopher at all come forward and tell us, what god or hero at any time or any place in all history has ever been said, as has Our Savior, to have transmitted to mankind salutary teachings about the eternal life and the heavenly kingdom, to have made countless masses throughout the entire inhabited world skilled in philosophic principles, to have persuaded them to concentrate on heaven and to hope for the pleasures stored up in heaven for God-loving souls? What god or hero ever has shined over and enlightened with the most brilliant rays of his teaching the area from the sun's rise to its setting, all but riding a circuit extensive as the sun's, so that every nation everywhere on earth discharges one and the same religious service to One God? What god or hero ever thrust aside all gods and heroes, Greek and barbarian, and ordained that not one god among those be believed to exist - and, having so ordained, prevailed. And what other when attacked by all, though He Himself was but One, ever destroyed the entire army of His enemies, conquering all the gods and heroes of the ages, so as to be Himself proclaimed by all peoples throughout the whole of human habitation the One Child of God? Who has ordained that those who inhabit the great earth, whether on continents or on islands, should assemble in the same place for the very same purpose every week on the day called after the Lord and have a holiday, and has accustomed them not to indulge their bodies but to rekindle their souls by divine study? What god or hero, being so attacked as was Our Savior, raised victory trophies over his enemies? For they from beginning to end never ceased from assailing His teachings and His people, but He who is invisible invisibly promoted His retainers, as well as their very houses of worship, to a fullness of glory. But why must we try to summarize in words that which surpasses all account, the divine powers of Our Savior, when even were we silent the deeds themselves would cry out to those who possess ears of the spirit, that the world of men has produced this truly strange and amazing and singular phenomenon, that the true Son of God has been seen on earth.
Perhaps the best estimate of Eusebius is to say he was a master of historical research but a poor defender of the true faith. His compromise with Arianism may have been the result more of his desire for peace and the influence of Constantine than of genuine conviction.


       Ecclesiastical History

8. St. Athanasius

If there is one writer whose name stands for doctrine and whose life symbolizes fortitude, it is St. Athanasius. He died in 373, after forty-five years in the episcopate.

His extensive writings were mainly composed during the frequent exiles he suffered because of his defense of the faith. Like St. Paul, he was hounded by his enemies and was forced on one occasion to hide in the tomb of his father.

Unlike Cyprian, whom he resembled in many ways, Athanasius had to defend Christ's true divinity against heretical bishops. Still a deacon, he accompanied Bishop Alexander of Alexandria to the Council of Nicea in 325. Even then, his vigorous opposition to Arius, who denied that Christ had the same divine nature as the Father, earned for Athanasius the hatred of the Arians and their sympathizers. Three years after Nicea, the people clamored for his episcopal ordination, crying out, "He is a sincere, virtuous man, a good Christian, an ascetic, a true bishop."

St. Athanasius championed three principal doctrines of the Catholic faith: the divinity of Jesus Christ, the mystery of the Redemption, and the independence of the Church from the state in teaching the faith and in guiding the morals and worship of the faithful.

At first glance, Athanasius' writings may seem to be too polemical, as in his two main works, the Discourse Against the Greeks and the Discourse Against the Arians. But they are sober reminders to us that we should be more wary of errors in faith and more zealous in defending revealed truth in our day. If anything, ours is an age in which error flourishes, at least partly because those who possess the truth are too squeamish about safeguarding their possession from pollution by error. Athanasius spoke fearlessly about the servility of Arian bishops to heretical pressure and denounced as a crime the banishment of Pope Liberius by the Arian emperor.

Lacking the sharp theological vocabulary later developed by the Church, Athanasius yet remained clear in his understanding of the cardinal mysteries of Christianity. What he wrote at the end of The Incarnation of the Word summarizes Athanasius' whole approach to the faith. He saw in his day widespread confusion, especially among intellectuals, about the most basic truths of revelation. His recommendation in the fourth century is more than ever valid today: a deep study of the Scriptures and education are to be highly esteemed, but "an upright life, a pure soul, and Christian virtue are necessary if the soul, having practiced these things, would obtain and possess what it desires to learn, the Word of God, as far as this is possible for human nature."

It was Athanasius' conviction that if anyone hopes to reach the wisdom of the Church's great thinkers, "he must first draw near to the saints by resembling them in their actions." Only holiness of life gives light to the believing mind. This explains St. Athanasius' preoccupation with purity of morals. It also accounts for his writing the classic story of the hermit St. Anthony of Egypt. This book is a classic three times over: it is our earliest extensive biography of a saint; it emphasizes the need for prayer and mortification if the intellect is to remain humble in accepting the mysteries of the faith; and it explains the role of the devil in seducing souls through pride, even to the rejection of God.


       The Incarnation of the Word
       The Life of Saint Anthony

9. Prudentius

The Spanish Christian poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348 - c. 405) was a lawyer by profession. After two terms as provincial governor, he was summoned by the emperor to court, where he served with distinction. But jurisprudence did not really appeal to him. He finally gave up the practice of law altogether and gave himself up to a life of asceticism, for example, abstaining from food until evening and not eating meat.

In his spare time, he composed many poems, which are deeply religious and reflect the strong Catholic faith of the early Christians, following the liberation of the Church under Constantine. There is no question why Prudentius wrote his poetry. It was simply to glorify God and atone for his own sins. Scholars have divided his poems into three categories: the lyrical, the didactic, and the polemical.

His lyric poems cover a large variety of subjects, especially for the sanctification of the hours of the day or certain important feasts, such as Christmas and Epiphany. Some of his poems continue the liturgical tradition of St. Ambrose and are written in the Ambrosian iambic diameter. Others, especially his Christian burial poetry, follow the metric form of Horace. Not a few of his poems were written to glorify the Church's martyrs, like Sts. Peter and Paul, Cyprian and Agnes.

Prudentius' two principal instructive poems are on the mystery of the Holy Trinity and on the origin of sin. They are both examples of passionate, glowing exposition of revealed dogma combined with an extraordinary gift of poetic expression. There seems no doubt that Prudentius was at least partially influenced by Tertullian, whose mastery of language was superb. But, unlike Tertullian, Prudentius never wavered in his Catholic orthodoxy. Yet, even Prudentius is not free from occasional lapses, like his belief that only a small number of souls will be lost.

Among Prudentius' polemical poetry, outstanding is his invective against Symmachus. In it, he shows how the early Christians reconciled their patriotism with their faith. For Prudentius, the Church is the divinely planned fulfillment of the genius of the Roman government. As a Christian, he is impartial to his pagan fellow citizens for their services to the state. Prudentius is proud of the Roman Senate, seeing that by the end of the fourth century most of its members were Christians.

It is not surprising that so many of Prudentius' poems have found their way into the Church's liturgy over the centuries. Nor is it any wonder that he is considered the greatest among the Christian poets in the first millennium of Catholic history. What he also shows is the power of the faith to inspire literary genius, not only among priests and religious but among the laity involved, as Prudentius was, in the secular world.



10. St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom had been Bishop of Constantinople for less than ten years when he died in exile in 407. But his place in history ranks among the giants of Catholic literature. He suffered intensely as bishop and was forced into exile because of his uncompromising defense of the Church's rights in conflict with the state.

He represents a new stage in the history of Christianity. The great writers who preceded him had to defend the true faith against heretical innovators, but Chrysostom had to protect the Church against political oppressors.

The epithet "Chrysostom" means "golden mouth" and identifies him as a powerful orator. He had a lively mind, a fertile imagination, a perfect sense of proportion, and an extraordinary depth of feeling. These features stand out even now, more than fifteen hundred years later, and are present in both his sermons and published writings.

His published oratorical works by actual count number over one thousand, some of which are extensive homilies on the New Testament. Among these are sermons on Genesis (67 homilies), on Matthew and John (178), and on St. Paul (250 homilies). The latter are considered the best commentaries on the Apostle of the Gentiles.

The nonoratorical writings are numerous and range across the spectrum of Christian faith and morals. The treatise On the Priesthood is the finest of his writings and perhaps the first really great pastoral work ever written, although he was only a deacon when he wrote this book. It stresses the dignity of the priesthood. The priest; it says; is greater than kings, angels, or parents. But priests are for that reason most tempted to pride and ambition. They, more than anyone else, need clear and unshakeable wisdom, patience that disarms pride, and exceptional prudence in dealing with souls.

Chrysostom's short Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children is a treasury of practical wisdom that is still useful in our day. On Virginity praises marriage but points out that virginity is preferable, as taught by St. Paul in his letters to the Corinthians.

When he wrote in defense of the faith, his approach was unlike that of Athanasius. Chrysostom was above all a practical apologist. His classic Against Julian and the Pagans was a reasoned proof of the credibility of Christianity against the apostate Emperor Julian. He argued from the miracles of Christ and recent prodigies that occurred when the remains of Christian martyrs were being transferred to their permanent resting place.

A favorite theme of Chrysostom was the providential role of suffering. He wrote To Those Who Are Scandalized Because of Adversity and entitled one of his short books No One Is Injured Except by Himself. His argument is that suffering is an integral part of Divine Providence, that to be a true follower of Christ means to experience what Christ experienced - namely, opposition and the Cross.

It is a tribute to Chrysostom's genius that so much of what he said has been preserved over the centuries. One reason for this is that he used the Sacred Scriptures as the principal and almost only source of his ideas. In fact, he made them a law for every preacher. He preferred the literal method for explaining the Scriptures and concentrated on the moral teachings of the Bible.

It can safely be said that no other biblical commentator in history has ever brought together so much sound Catholic thought so calmly and sensibly, with such spiritual depth, and with such ease and skill as St. John Chrysostom.


       On the Priesthood
       Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children

11. St. Augustine

St. Augustine, the greatest Doctor of the Church, has left us a library of Christian wisdom. His conversion to the faith in 387, at the age of thirty-three, was really the discovery of certain basic truths, which he spent the rest of his literary life defending:

  • The world is essentially good because it is the work of God. It was the Holy Trinity who created the world out of nothing.

  • There is order in the world, ruled by Divine Providence. Even evil has a place in the world. Physical evil, which is basically suffering, is the result of moral evil, or sin, which is the misuse of angelic and human liberty.

  • Jesus Christ is true God, who became man to redeem a sinful human race. The humility of the Incarnation expiated man's pride, and the Crucifixion reconciled man with the offended God.

  • As first created, Adam possessed not only a human nature but what are called supernatural and preternatural gifts. Original sin deprived Adam and his posterity of both gifts. Christ's passion and death merited the restoration of the supernatural life and provided the graces necessary to cope with the loss of the preternatural gifts. We are enabled, with divine help, to control our sinful desires and accept suffering and death. All the while, our free will, though weakened, remains intact, so that we can cooperate with the grace of God. If we cooperate, we shall reach heaven; if we refuse to cooperate, we shall be eternally deprived of the vision of God.

Augustine's contribution to Catholic thought made a universal and permanent impact on the Christian world. The underlying reason for this extraordinary influence was the fact that three of the most fundamental errors ever to plague Christianity were prevalent in his day. In fact, all three have continued to exercise their baneful influence down to the present.

Augustine did more than merely refute the errors. He explained the orthodox teaching so clearly that, in many cases, his explanation has been normative in Catholic thought. Three principal errors had to be answered, each having, by now, a famous name: Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism.

Having been a Manichaean himself for nine years before his conversion, Augustine drew on firsthand experience when he wrote in defense of the Catholic doctrine in Nature of the Good Against the Manichees. Where the Manichaeans claimed there were finally two gods, one the author of matter and the other of spirit, Augustine showed that all being, material and spiritual, is essentially good, since God, who is all-good, is its Author. Evil is always a privation or lack of what should be present. And all evil is finally the result of a misuse by a created free will of its God-given liberty.

Where the Donatists urged that the Church founded by Christ has only holy members, Augustine showed from Scripture that both good and sinful members were expected to belong to the Church on earth. This, in fact, is part of her universality, that she includes sinners who, in God's Providence, are to be converted before they die and, in the process, help to sanctify the good.

However, the main focus of Augustine's writing was to defend the idea that we absolutely need supernatural grace to reach our heavenly destiny, which the Pelagians denied. Because of his long struggle with sexual passions, Augustine had no illusions about man's inability even to live a morally good life without divine help. Pelagianism, he saw, was a deluded self-conceit. Twenty years of preaching and writing, to the day of his death and some thirty volumes in a modern edition, testify to Augustine's zeal.

Running as a theme through his literary life was Augustine's firm allegiance to the Bishop of Rome. He constantly relied on the Roman Pontiff for approval of his own orthodoxy. In a statement that made history, he announced in a sermon on September 23, 417, that word had just been received from Rome: Pope Innocent I had condemned Pelagius. "The case is finished," he declared. "If only the error would disappear!"

The writings of Augustine alone could constitute a Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan. Three books, however, should be read by anyone who wants to know Catholic thought, and not only that of the fifth century. They are essential for understanding authentic Christianity in any age.

The Confessions is not mainly a book of repentance but above all a book of praise. In Augustine's own words, "My Confessions praise the just and good God for all the blessings and all the misfortunes that have befallen me; they raise up to Him the mind and heart of man."

The City of God is the greatest story of world history ever written. It spans the providential action of God with regard to the whole of mankind, not only in the past but also in the future and into the next world.

Of True Religion is a short masterpiece in defense of Catholic Christianity. After showing the truth of the faith in contrast with paganism, it explains the two ways that Divine Providence provides for the salvation of the human family - namely, by authority and reason. It shows how God brings man to Himself through an examination of his vicious tendencies. The goal of these reflections is to lead his readers to Christian holiness, achieved in perfect liberty through contemplation of the truth and knowledge of Sacred Scriptures.

After the Bible, no other books are more widely read or have been more influential in shaping human thought than the writings of St. Augustine.


       City of God
       The Confessions
       Of True Religion
       Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Charity

12. St. Jerome

The Catholic Church honors St. Jerome as the heavenly patron of biblical studies. Ordained a priest about the age of thirty, his reputation as a scholar led to his appointment as secretary to Pope Damasus I. It was this Pope, who in 384, told Jerome to compose an official text of the Latin version of the Bible. As a result, Jerome spent most of the rest of his life - thirty-five years in Palestine, working tirelessly on the work given him by the Pope. The translation into Latin was finished about 405.

After about two centuries, Jerome's version took the first place in the West. In the thirteenth century, it became known as the Vulgate, because it was the vulgata editio (edition in general circulation). By the sixteenth century, the Vulgate had appeared in several hundred print editions, with numerous variants.

The Council of Trent declared that the Vulgate "is to be held authentic in public readings, disputations and sermons and exposition," and ordered its careful revision. This meant that the Vulgate was to be the official biblical text of the Catholic Church.

Not satisfied with this monumental achievement, Jerome wrote extensive commentaries on the Bible. His approach to explaining Scripture may be described as spiritual. But he took pains to base his mystical interpretation on the literal sense of the inspired text. One reason for this caution was the rise of Origenism, named after Origen, the biblical scholar who was misled into thinking that hell might not be eternal, at least not for everyone.

Jerome may be said to have founded the history of Christian literature. His work On Illustrious (Famous) Men gives a library of information on one hundred and thirty-five writers from St. Peter to himself and includes some non-Christians like Philo and Seneca.

From a literary point of view, Jerome's correspondence is the most perfect of his writings. There are some one hundred and twenty-five letters, covering a vast range of subjects. Some deal with asceticism, others with controversy, and still others with personal matters. But all are so revealing of his own character and so outspokenly clear that over the centuries they have been considered masterpieces of the epistolary art.

St. Jerome typifies the paradox of a Doctor of the Church who was thoroughly sound on basic principles of faith and morals but who erred in some matters of Catholic doctrine. He seems never to have completely purged himself of Origenism, about the eventual salvation of all Christians. And he allowed himself to question the inspiration of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament.

Since the Church's magisterium had not yet made definite pronouncements on these matters, Jerome's ambiguity is less surprising. It was left to St. Augustine, one of his correspondents, to remove the uncertainty left by St. Jerome.


       On Illustrious (famous) Men

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