CHURCH FATHERS (2): What ‘Church Father’ means

Rev. José Mario O. Mandía

Sacred Tradition is the “living transmission of the word of God” (CCCC 13). Pope Benedict XVI, in his General Audience of 26 April 2006, teaches that Sacred Tradition guarantees the connection between the Church now and the Church of the beginning. Sacred Tradition is about the continual growth of a living organism.

“Tradition is the communion of the faithful around their legitimate Pastors down through history, a communion that the Holy Spirit nurtures, assuring the connection between the experience of the apostolic faith, lived in the original community of the disciples, and the actual experience of Christ in his Church….

“Thanks to Tradition, guaranteed by the ministry of the Apostles and by their successors, the water of life that flowed from Christ’s side and his saving blood reach the women and men of all times. Thus, Tradition is the permanent presence of the Saviour who comes to meet us, to redeem us and to sanctify us in the Spirit, through the ministry of his Church, to the glory of the Father.

“Concluding and summing up, we can therefore say that Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity. And since this is so, in this living river the words of the Lord that we heard on the reader’s lips to start with are ceaselessly brought about: ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Mt 28: 20).”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 78) adds: “Through Tradition, ‘the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes’ (Dei Verbum 8 § 1). ‘The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer’ (Dei Verbum 8 § 3).”

Tradition covers “preaching, bearing witness, institutions, worship” (CCCC 12), but we shall limit ourselves here to the teachings of the “holy Fathers”.

We shall use as a guide the four-volume work of Johannes Quasten (Patrology, Maryland: Christian Classics. 1983) and the series of Wednesday Audiences granted by Pope Benedict XVI from 2007 to 2009.

In the times of Saint Paul, a father was a teacher or guide. “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (I Corinthians 4:15).

As the Church grew, since the teaching office was primarily the responsibility of the bishop, the title ‘Father’ was applied to him.

During the fourth century, the appearance of doctrinal controversies called for other ecclesiastical writers to defend the faith. The title ‘Father’ was also applied to them. 

Today, a distinction is made between ‘Church Father’ and ‘ecclesiastical writer.’ Four characteristics are necessary for a person to qualify as a Church Father: (1) orthodoxy of doctrine; (2) holiness of life; (3) recognition by the Church; (4) antiquity (first seven centuries of Christianity). Our future discussions will include both Church Fathers and the more significant ecclesiastical writers.

It is worth noting as well that when the Church Fathers are unanimous on one point of doctrine, the Church considers that doctrine infallible. 

The Fathers wrote either in Koine Greek (a compromise between classical and popular Greek) or in Latin. Since the time of Boniface VIII (1298), the Church has also singled out ‘the great Fathers’: four from the West (Latin) and four from the East (Greek).

The four great Western Fathers are Jerome (ca 342-420), Ambrose (339-397), Augustine (354-430) and Gregory the Great (540-604). 

The four great Eastern Fathers are Athanasius (ca 296-373), Basil the Great (330-379), John Chrysostom (347-407) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390).

(Image source: Wikipedia)