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by Fr. John Saward

In November 1979 the Krakow monthly Znak published a play, written over fifteen years earlier, by Archbishop Karol Woityta. Its title Radiation of Fatherhood summed up its Pauline theme, the ‘naming’ of all creaturely paternity, physical and spiritual, from the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf Eph 3, 15). In the Church the Fatherhood of God is radiated, reflected, by those who in ordination share the priesthood of His Son. By word and sacrament the successors of the apostles, with their co-workers in the presbyterium, generate and sustain new life, new offspring, in the Holy Spirit. Thus, through the Sacrament of Holy Order, the Church never lacks fathers. Every bishop can to some degree say with St Paul: ‘You may have ten thousand schoolmasters in Christ, but not many fathers. For In Christ Jesus, by the Gospel, I have begotten you’ (1 Cor 4, 15). The faith that comes to us from the apostles passes perpetually, as St Athanasius says, ‘from fathers to fathers’. Now, among our past fathers-in-God, the saintly and orthodox doctors of the early Church (most of whom were bishops) have a special status and authority. Every succeeding generation in the Church refreshes itself at the fount of their teaching and measures itself by the standard of their lives. The fatherhood of the Church Fathers radiates the light of the Gospel unfailingly.

The Fathers of the Church are the Fathers of Europe. In the first millennium, they gave our continent its Christian birth; at the dawn of the third Millennium, they can aid its re-birth. They ‘inculturated’ the faith, in Greco-Roman antiquity; they can guide us in re-evangelizing the Europe of post-modernity. They are of special encouragement to those who, with Pope  John Paul II, seek new bonds of Christian solidarity between East and West, for in the Patristic age the Church still breathed fully with her two lungs. We cannot pretend that there were not, even then, many cases of cultural incomprehension and in the end an apparently unstoppable drift towards estrangement. But equally we must not obscure, we should take heart from, the innumerable examples of lived Catholic communion. Let me cite one. In the second century, St Irenaeus, a Greek from Smyrna, ministered as priest and bishop in Lyons, among the Celts of Gaul. In the far West he heard preached, and himself preached, the same apostolic creed he had received from Polycarp in the East. The one Church of Christ, says Irenaeus, ‘even though dispersed throughout the whole world’, holds in all the places one and the same faith, ‘as though having only one soul and one heart’. And what is the visible principle of this unity and orthodoxy? The succession of bishops from the apostles and the accord of the local Churches with ‘the very great and very ancient Church, known to all, which the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul founded and established at Rome’.*

*   It is with strong personal feeling that I speak of the reconciliation of Christian East and West. I am a Catholic of the Latin rite, born and brought up in England, but my father’s father was Greek and Orthodox, a native of the birthplace of Irenaeus, the martyred city of Smyrna.


Fathers in Faith

The Fathers fathered us in faith. They composed the symbols, the regulae fidei which sum up for all succeeding ages the doctrine of ‘the apostles. They guarded and expounded the deposit of revelation in response to the heresies and cultural challenges of the Greco-Roman world. They are The Church’s first theologians and the model for all who take up The task of intellectus fidei,

The Fathers transmit not only the content of what we believe but an example of how to believe. Their faith is humble. They are overwhelmed by the incomparable grandeur of the Triune God revealed in Christ. God is knowable, they say, yet incomprehensible. According to St John Chrysostom, lecturing against Eunomian rationalism, the believer ‘knows That God is wise, but he does not how great his wisdom is’. The tiny mind of man can never enclose the boundlessness of God, never exhaust His unsearchable beauty, truth, and goodness. Si comprehendis, non est Deus,

The first and most dangerous heresy combated by The Fathers was Gnosticism, which offered its devotees a grandiose system of knowledge, an explanation of everything, even of the ‘how’ of the divine operations. The Fathers rejected the propositions of its doctrine and the pride of its method. St Irenaeus, the hammer of the Gnostics, does not presume to know the  ‘how’ of God, but only the revealed ‘why’ of creation, fall, Incarnation, and redemption. He seeks loving knowledge, the science of the saints.

It is better and more profitable that we should be uneducated and know little and yet draw near to the love of God than that we should think ourselves deeply learned and experienced and so blaspheme against Our Lord. That is why St Paul proclaimed, ‘Gnosis puffs up, but love builds up’.

God is infinite and infinitely surprising, and so the Fathers’ humble faith is full of wonder. This more than anything distinguishes their rhetorical style from that of pagan antiquity. The exclamations of uninhibited youthful astonishment in the preaching of a Gregory Nazianzen or an Augustine have no parallel in the sober orations of Demosthenes or Cicero. The note of wonder is particularly evident in their exegesis. As Balthasar has said, the Fathers were ‘amateurs’ of the Word of God, men enthralled by the Spirit-filled, many-splendoured richness of the Bible. Modern criticism tends to break down texts and reduce their meaning. The Fathers, by contrast, delight in making connections and conserving a wealth of complementary senses.

The chief cause of Patristic wonder, the marvel or marvels, is the Incarnation. It is stupendous, beyond the wildest dreams of prophet or sibyl, that God, the Father’s consubstantial Word, without ceasing to be true God, should become true man in the Virgin’s lowly womb. And it is not only this fact of Incarnation but its finality which so astonishes the minds of the Fathers and seizes their hearts, God becomes man in order to establish an exchange. O admirabile commercium! Phrikton synallagma!Amazing transaction! Stunning contract!’ God the Son becomes what we are, so that we might become what He is. He takes the poverty of our humanity to give us the riches of His divinity. He assumes our guilt to bestow His innocence.

In the mystery of the Word Incarnate the mystery of man becomes clear — and wonderful. How precious we must be to God, says St Peter Chrysologus, if He has not only made us but assumed our nature to redeem us. ‘The hand that graciously took mud to form us also graciously took flesh to restore us’, ‘Wake up, man’, shout Augustine and Leo on Christmas Day, appreciate the nobility lavished on you by the Virgin’s Child, Here is a wonder that is at once theology, anthropology, mysticism, a complete moral and social programme, It is the subject of the Fathers’ preaching, the quality of their prayer, the motive force of their pastoral charity.

We, the Christians of Europe, must re-capture the humility and wonder of the Fathers’ faith, It is, I believe, a heaven-given protection against the ideologies of our times, which have succeeded to ancient Gnosticism and repeat its errors. Any world-view which sets ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’, nature and God, in antagonism is a continuation of the Gnostic impulse, even if it claims the name of materialism, The theologies which flee from the bodily aspects of revelation — the Virginity of Mary, the Resurrection of Jesus, Transubstantiation — are in the camp of Valentinus and Basilides. The mentality of modern dissent, which despises the visible Church and her Magisterium, reproduces the sectarianism condemned by St Ignatius of Antioch; sure teaching is no longer found in the large space of the Petrine Church, but in the closed circle of the like-minded. In the face of this arrogant elitism, we can do no better than enrol ourselves in the school of the Fathers’ modesty and awe.

Fathers in Hope

The Fathers of the Church father us in hope of heaven, and so they do not betray us with the cruel deception of Utopianism, of a political paradise-on-earth. We have here no abiding city, St Ambrose was a Roman of the Romans, with a high view of the Empire in its Christian form, but he recognized its limitations and carefully defined the powers of its head, The Emperor is in the Church, he says, not above it, In matters of faith the bishops are judges of emperors, not emperors of bishops. It was harder to maintain this line in the glittering theocracy of Byzantium, but even there, at no small cost, the Fathers — St Maximus the Confessor, St Germanus of Constantinople, St Theodore the Studite — resisted Caesaropapism, They were the king’s loyal servants, but God’s first.

The Fathers do not lock us into the past, They turn us in hope to the present and the future. They are our contemporaries in the Communion of Saints. To follow them, therefore, is to walk expectantly towards the eternal Jerusalem, No true son of the Fathers will romanticize the Patristic age as golden, as if the Church has ever since been in decline, John Henry Newman learnt this lesson in 1845, To join the Church of Leo I, he had to be in communion with Gregory XVI. The Church of the Fathers subsists in the real, historical Church of today. Fidelity to the Fathers is not antiquarianism, If we are true to them, we must share their awareness of the living character of Tradition, For them, as Cardinal de Lubac has said, Tradition is ‘a vital energy, a propulsive as much as a protective force’, They see divine revelation as ever ancient, ever new, complete with the death of the last apostle, yet incapable of aging, For revelation is nothing other than the Word made flesh Himself, the ever-young Son of the Father, sent to make all things new.

Fathers in Charity

The Patristic age is that chapter in the Church’s history when her theologians were saints, The faith they taught with their lips, they believed with their hearts and lived in holiness, in charity. In them the dogmatic and moral and mystical are one, The secret of the Fathers’ power, of their permanent resourcefulness and vitality, derives from the closeness of their loving union with God. As the great Tübingen scholar, J. A. Möhler, said, ‘the hearts of the Fathers were full of Jesus Christ’. Their knowledge of Christ and the Trinity is that deep and intimate, first-hand and personal knowledge which the Scholastics call ‘connatural’. It is the knowledge of friendship, of a Christ-filled heart, It is faith formed by charity and perfected by the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom and understanding.

The modern era’s separation of theology from holiness has been described by Hans Urs von Balthasar as ‘the most tragic divorce in the history of the Church’. Theology can contribute to the renewal of our continent only when it is itself renewed in the spirit and thus the sanctity of the Fathers. The Church’s scholars would do well to place themselves under the patronage of St John, the Beloved Disciple, who, for the Fathers, was the theologian par excellence. He learnt his doctrine, says Augustine, at the heart of Christ. To that same source of love and wisdom the Fathers point us all.

The Fathers preferred nothing, not even life itself, to the love of Christ. Throughout the Patristic age, martyrdom was not only a constant threat and thought, but an undying inspiration and ideal. The Fathers are unanimous: the martyr is the complete Christian, the epitome of what it means to follow Christ in faith, hope, and love. As the Holy Father reminded us recently, the martyrs are Europe’s true makers. Their blood is the seed of our authentic culture, They reveal to us the way to the civilization of love: a devotion to Christ that costs nothing less than everything,


If we are to restore bonds of communion across time as well as space, we have to assert our filial dependency, our debt to the Fathers.

We Christians (says Balthasar) are in no sense individuals who, without parents or in revolt against parents who refuse to make concessions to us, make our way alone in the present, We are and remain members of the Church, branches of her tree, nourished by the sap of her total experience, which ultimately rises up out of the unfathomable experiences of Jesus Christ.

It was this conviction which led, fifty years ago, to the foundation of the series Sources Chrétiennes. In the darkest days of the Second World War, a group of Catholic scholars came to the conclusion that the Fathers of the Church offered wisdom for the present-day healing of the nations, I share that belief. The most practical thing any of us can do for the new evangelization is to open up, for ourselves and for others, the doctrinal and spiritual treasures of Catholic tradition.

Honouring the Fathers in a religious manner is an act of faith, hope, and charity. It is a creative contribution to the Christian renewal of our culture, which, since the Enlightenment, has belittled the very notion of tradition, Truth is no longer seen as a patrimony, an inheritance received from fathers and shared among brothers; it has become the achievement of the individual’s unaided reason. Spiritual fatherhood is at best an encumbrance, at worst an enslavement.

The flight from the Fathers began earlier, at the Reformation, when Protestantism severed Scripture from Tradition and Magisterium, creating a religious sensibility that exulted in its discontinuity with the past. The typical new man of the post-Reformation world is Edmund in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the unindebted individualist, who glories in being fatherless, In his Ten Reasons a very different Edmund, St Edmund Campion, documents the Reformers’ practical contempt for the Fathers, or indeed for any ecclesial mediation of revealed truth. Luther, he says, ‘reckons nothing of having against him a thousand Augustines, a thousand Cyprians, a thousand Churches’. The Reformers cite the Fathers, but only for their occasional utility, not their essential authority. The sense of living fellowship, of docility and pietas, has disappeared, The unanimis consensus Patrum is no longer heeded, (An attempt to reclaim the Fathers was made within Anglicanism, first by the Caroline divines and later by the Tractarians, but the project rested on a contradiction. If Scripture cannot be interpreted without the Fathers, the true meaning of the Fathers cannot be determined in isolation from the continuing Tradition and living Magisterium of the Church. It was only after his conversion that Newman felt able to kiss the works of Athanasius and Basil and to say: ‘You are now mine and I am yours beyond any mistake’),

Modern feminism is the sad daughter of our parricidal culture, It is suspicious of all fatherhood — physical and spiritual, In its catechism, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘paternalism’ are the gravest of all crimes. The Christian can readily agree that fatherhood, like everything that is good, can be abused and corrupted, In family or Church, it can be oppressive and destructive, But William Blake’s Nobodaddy is not the only realization of paternity. The Incarnate Son gives male weakness the grace to reflect something of the undominating authority of the One who sent Him. This is the mission of his guardian, St Joseph, and of the head of every Christian family. It is also the secret of the Church’s spiritual fathers, from the first centuries to our own times. Beside Old Man Karamazov stands Staretz Zossima.

We need not fear that, in turning to the Fathers, we are giving excessive honour to the male and the clerical. As Cardinal de Lubac has shown, the spiritual fatherhood of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, as well of the Church Fathers, is surrounded and sustained by a larger feminine, maternal presence, the motherhood of the Church, symbolizod and embodied in the Virgin Mother of God. This is not a merely modern explanation of Church Fatherhood. It is the Fathers’ own self-understanding. St Augustine speaks for them all: Only faithful sons of Holy Mother Church can be fathers in the Church.

The secret of fatherhood is in the hands of the mother, As the figure of the Mother says in Wojtyla’s Radiation of FatherhoodThe radiation of fatherhood passes through me, acts through my motherhood … I gather in me the radiation of fatherhood — and the dying of fatherhood’. God the Father has given the Mother of His Son to be model and Mother of the Church and every Christian. Through her intercession, let us pray that our prodigal continent will return to its Christian Fathers and be clothed anew with the robe of faith, hope, and charity.

Copyright ©; Fr John Saward 2008

This version: 17th May 2008

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