Book Review: The Church Fathers by Pope Benedict XVI

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book on the Church Fathers, those leaders of the early Church who came within the first few generations after the Apostles. It was a heavy tome with small print; it seemed very intimidating and I never did get around to reading it. That is why I was so excited to get my hands on a copy of The Fathers by Pope Benedict XVI (Our Sunday Visitor, 2008). The material in this book is a slightly edited record of the weekly general audiences Pope Benedict gave on this topic from March 7, 2007 to February 27, 2008. It is incredibly readable and very interesting.

The Church Fathers are fascinating to learn about. Many were converts to the faith and arrived at the Church through a variety of spiritual journeys. They were highly educated and several worked to integrate Greek philosophy with the Christian faith. They also struggled with many of the theological questions that now form the foundation of our faith: Christ as both God and man; the Trinity, and what it means to be a baptized Christian.

Pope Benedict began his treatment of this subject with St. Clement, the third successor of St. Peter who led the Church in the last years of the first century. He intervened in the Church of Corinth in what was the first exercise of Roman Primacy after St. Peter’s death. In his letter to Corinth, “he clearly explains the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. . .The Father sent Jesus Christ, who in turn sent the Apostles. They then sent the first heads of communities and established that they would be succeeded by other worthy men. . . .The Church is above all a gift of God and not something we ourselves created.”

Pope Benedict then devotes his attention to St. Ignatius of Antioch who was “the first person in Christian literature to attribute to the Church the adjective ‘catholic’ or ‘universal’.” St. Justin did his best to both defend the faith and explain it. He believed that both the Old Testament and Greek philosophy were two paths that led to Christ. St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote the first catechism of the Catholic Church. Origen of Alexandria preached a message of love, as he was convinced that “the best way to become acquainted with God is through love.” Tertullian would eventually join the Montanist sect but he gave the Church the terms “one substance” and “three persons” for help in explaining the mystery of the Trinity. Cyprian reflected on the communal message of the “Our Father”: “Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we, the whole people, are one.”

Other Church Fathers Pope Benedict invites us to spend time with include St. Cyril of Jerusalem who emphasized the Christian’s rebirth through baptism. St. Basil was one of the Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine and encouraged interaction with the culture at large. St. Gregory of Nyssa reflected on the beauty of man as being created in the image of God. St. Hilary of Poitiers defended the divinity of Christ by quoting from both the Old and New Testament. St. Jerome translated the Bible into the Latin vernacular. St. Paulinus of Nola wrote beautiful poetry and made use of religious art to instruct pilgrims. Lastly, Pope Benedict focuses on St. Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most famous Father of them all, who maintained that “faith and reason . . . must always go hand in hand.”

Pope Benedict is a gifted teacher, speaker, and writer, and “The Fathers” is more evidence of this. He is able to take a complicated history and make it accessible to all. “The Fathers” provides a great introduction into the lives and works of many of the great men who helped to form the early Church. It is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to learn more about Church history.


2 responses to “Book Review: The Church Fathers by Pope Benedict XVI”