June 28, 2018: ST. IRENAEUS
June 28, 2018: ST. IRENAEUS, BISHOP AND MARTYR
Oh! what a crown is thine, most noble Pontiff! Man must needs confess himself utterly unable to count the pearls with which it is adorned. For in the arena where thou didst win it, a whole people were thy fellow combatants; and as each martyr, one by one, ascended to his throne in Heaven, he proclaimed thy glory, for he owed his crown to thee.
O God, You granted to Blessed Irenӕus, Your Martyr and Bishop, to stamp out heresies by the truth of his doctrine and happily to establish peace in the Church; we beseech You, give to Your people constancy in holy religion, and grant us Your peace in our days. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee, in unity of the Holy Ghost, God, World without end. Amen.
[The] Church of Lyons presents to the admiration of the whole world, her own great Doctor, the valiant and pacific Irenӕus, who quitting the shores of brilliant Ionia, travelled as far as these Celtic coasts, here to shine as “the light of the West. But whilst contemplating him to-day confirming with his blood the doctrine he had preached, let us hearken to his words bearing testimony unto Holy Mother Church,—words of world-wide celebrity, at once confounding hell and closing the mouth of heresy. May we not say, that it was in order to afford us instruction so appropriate for tomorrow's festival that Eternal Wisdom made choice of this particular day for His martyr's triumph? Let us hearken then to this zealous pupil of Polycarp and of the first disciples of the Apostles; let us hearken to him who for this very reason is considered to be the most authentic witness to the Faith, in all the Churches of the second century,—all which Churches (these are his own words when Bishop of Lyons) bow down before Rome, as to their Mistress and Mother. “For,” he continues, “it behoves all the rest because of her superior Principality, to agree with her: in her, do all the Faithful of whatsoever place, preserve ever pure the Faith once preached to them. Great and venerable above all others because of her antiquity, known to all, founded by Peter and Paul the two most glorious of the Apostles,—her Bishops are, by their succession, the channel whereby Apostolic tradition is transmitted unto us in all its integrity: in such sort, that whosoever differs from her in his belief,—by this fact alone stands confounded.”
The rock on which the Church is built stood all unmoved, at that early age, as now, against the efforts of false science. Yet not without peril was the attack then made by the Gnostics, with that multiplex heresy of theirs and all its guileful plots put into strange concurrence, by powers of evil otherwise the most opposed one to the other. It would almost seem as though Christ had wished to prove the strength of the foundations He had laid, by thus permitting hell to direct against the Church a simultaneous assault of all the errors to which the world then was or ever would become a prey. Simon the Magician already ensnared by Satan in the nets of the occult sciences, was chosen by the prince of darkness as his lieutenant in the enterprise. Unmasked at Samaria, by the Vicar of the Man-God, he had commenced against Simon Peter a jealous struggle, that would by no means end with the tragic death of the father of heresies, but which in the following century was to be continued more desperately than ever, through disciples formed by him. Saturninus, Basilides, Valentine,—all these did but apply the premises of the master, diversifying them according to the instincts bred at the time, by the then existing forms of corruption of mind and heart. A proceeding all the more avowed, inasmuch as the aim of Magus had been nothing less than the sealing of an alliance betwixt philosophies, religions, and aspirations the most contradictory. There was no aberration, from Persian dualism or Hindoo idealism, to Jewish cabals or Greek polytheism, that did not mutually proffer the hand of friendship, in this reserved sanctuary of the Gnosis; there, already were the heterodox conceptions of Arius and Eutyches being formulated; there, taking movement and life, in advance, were to be recognised in a strange pantheistic romance, the wildest oddities of the hollow dreams of German metaphysics. God, an abyss, rolling from fall to fall, till at last reaching matter, there to become conscious of Himself in human nature and to return then, by annihilation, into eternal silence: this is the sum total of Gnostic dogma, engendering, for its morality, a mixture of transcendent mysticism, and impure practices; for its political form, laying the basis of Communism and modern Nihilism.
Such a spectacle as this of the Gnostic Babel, piling up its incoherent materials on the waters of pride and impure passions, was indeed well calculated to bring out, in bold relief, the admirable unity of the City of God, so rapidly advancing, though but in her commencement. St. Irenӕus, chosen by God to oppose to the Gnosis arguments of his own powerful logic, and to reestablish, in opposition thereunto, the true sense of holy Scripture,—excelled most of all, when, in face of a thousand sects bearing on their brow the visible mark of the father of discord and lies, he pointed to the Church maintaining as sacred, throughout the universe, the whole of tradition, just as received from the Apostles. Faith in the great truth that the world is wholly governed by the Holy Trinity Whose work it is,—faith in the Mystery of Justice and Mercy, which leaving the Angels in their fall, did yet raise up this flesh of ours, in Jesus, the Well-Beloved, the Son of Mary, our God, our Saviour and our King,—such was the deposit confided to earth by Peter and Paul, by the Apostles and by their disciples. “The Church, therefore,” so argues Saint Irenӕus with all his enthusiastic piety and learning, the Church having received Faith, guards the same with all diligence, making the whole world wherein she lives dispersed, to become but one single House: collected in unity, she believes with one soul, with one heart; with one voice she preaches, teaches, transmits doctrine, as having but one mouth. For, although there be in the world divers languages, that by no means prevents tradition remaining one in its sap. The Churches founded in Germany, or amidst the Iberians, or the Celts, believe not otherwise, teach not otherwise, than do the Churches of the East, of Egypt, of Lybia, or of those established in the centre of the world. But even as the sun, God's creature, is ever the same and remains one in the whole world; so too does the teaching of Truth shine resplendent, illumining every man who is willing to come unto the knowledge of the Truth. Even though the chief men in the Churches be unequal in the art of speaking well, tradition is not thereby impaired: he who explains eloquently, cannot possibly give it increase; he who speaks with less abundance, cannot thereby diminish it.”
O sacred Unity, O precious Faith deposited like a source of eternal youthfulness in our hearts! They indeed know thee not, who turn themselves away from Holy Church! afar from her, they must needs lose also Jesus and all His gifts. “For where the Church is, there likewise is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there likewise is the Church, there all grace. Wo to them who alienate themselves from her! they suck not in life from the nourishing breasts to which their Mother invites them, they slake not their thirst at the limpid Fount of the Lord's Body; but, afar from the rock of unity, they drink the muddy waters of cisterns dug in fetid slime where there is not a drop of the water of truth.” What will their vain science avail to sophists, with all their empty foolish formulӕ? “Oh!” cries out the Bishop of Lyons, elsewhere, in accents which seem to have been borrowed, later on, by the author of the Imitation, “Oh! how far better is it to be ignorant, or a man of little learning, and to draw nigh unto God by love! What use is there in knowing much, in passing off for having grasped much, if one be an enemy to his Lord? Wherefore, Paul doth thus exclaim: knowledge puffeth up, but charity builds up (I Cor, viii. 1). Not that he reproved the true science of God; for if so he had condemned himself, in the first place; but he saw that there were some who, exalting themselves under pretext of knowledge, knew not any longer, how to love. Yea, verily; better were it to know naught at all, to be ignorant of the meaning of everything, and yet to believe in God and to be possessed of charity. Let us avoid vain puffing up which would make us fall away from love, the life of the soul; let Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified for us, be our only science.”
Rather than here bring forward, the genius of the eminent Controvertialist of the second century, it is a pleasure to cite from his Treatises, such passages as give an insight into his great soul, and reveal traits of a sanctity so loving and so sweet. “When, at last, the Spouse cometh,” says he, speaking of those unfortunate men he would fain reclaim, “their science will not keep their lamp lighted, and they will find themselves excluded from the nuptial chamber.”
In numberless places, in the midst of closely strung arguments, he who may be styled the grand-son of the Beloved Disciple, betrays his own heart. Whilst following, for instance, the track of Abraham, he shows the path that leads to the Spouse: his mouth can then no longer cease to re-utter the name that fills his thoughts. We cannot but recognise in these touching words of his, the Apostle who had quitted country and home, to advance the kingdom of God in the land of the Gauls: “Abraham did well to abandon his earthly relatives to follow the Word of God, to exile himself together with the Word, so as to live with Him. The Apostles did well too, in order to follow the Word of God, to quit their bark and their father. We likewise, who have the same faith as Abraham, we do well carrying our cross, as Isaac did the wood, to follow in his footsteps. In Abraham, man learnt that it is possible to follow the Word of God, and thus were his steps made firm in this blessed way. The Word, on His part, nevertheless, disposed man for the divine mysteries, by figures throwing light on the future. Moses espoused an Ethiopian, who thus became a daughter of Israel: and by these nuptials of Moses, those of the Word were pointed out, for by this Ethiopian, was signified the Church that hath come forth from the gentiles; whilst awaiting the day wherein the Word Himself will come to wash away, with His own hands, the defilements of the daughter of Sion, at the Banquet of the Last Supper. For fitting it is, that the temple be pure, in which the Bridegroom and Bride are to taste of the delights of the Spirit of God; and even as it beseemeth not the Bride to come forward herself to take a Spouse, but she must needs wait till she be sought out: so this flesh of ours cannot of itself rise to the majesty of the Throne Divine; but when the Spouse cometh, oh! then He will raise her up, and she will not so much possess Him, but will rather be possessed by Him. The Word made Flesh will assimilate her wholly to Himself in all fulness, and will render her precious in the eyes of the Father, by reason of this her conformity to His visible Word. Then will the union with God in love, be consummated. Divine union is life and light; it imparts the enjoyment of all the good things of God; it is eternal of its very nature, just as these good things themselves likewise are. Wo to those who withdraw themselves therefrom; their chastisement comes less from God, than from themselves and from the free choice whereby, turning from God, they have lost all the good things of God.”
The loss of faith being the most radical and the deepest of all causes of estrangement from God, it is not surprising to observe the horror which heresy inspired, in those days when union with God was the one treasure ambitioned by all conditions and ages of life. The name lrenӕus signifies peace; and justifying this beautiful name, his condescending charity once led the Roman Pontiff himself to withhold the thunders he was on the point of hurling; the question at issue was one of no small importance,—it was the celebration of Easter. Nevertheless Irenӕus himself relates with regard to his Master Polycarp, how when being asked by the heretic Marcion, if he knew him, he replied: “I know thee to be the first-born of Satan.” He also gives us that fact concerning Saint John, who when hearing that Cerinthus was in the same public edifice into which he had just entered, fled precipitately, for fear, as he said, that because of this enemy of Truth, the walls of the building would crumble down upon them all: “so great,” remarks the Bishop of Lyons, “was the fear the Apostles and their disciples had of communicating even by word, with any one of those who altered Truth.” He who was styled by the companions of Saints Pothinus and Blandina, in their prison, the “zelator of the Testament of Christ,” was on this point, as on all others, the worthy heir of John and Polycarp. Far from becoming hardened thereby, his heart, like that of his venerable masters, drew from this purity of mind, that limitless tenderness of which he gave proof in regard to those erring ones whom he hoped to win back. What could be more touching than the letter written by Irenӕus, to one of these unhappy men whom the mirage of novel doctrines had inveigled into the gulf of error: “O Florinus, this teaching is not that transmitted to us by the ancients, the disciples of the Apostles. I used to behold thee at the side of Polycarp; though shining at court, thou didst none the less seek to be pleasing unto him. I was then but a child, yet the things that happened at that time are more vivid in my recollection, that those of yesterday; for indeed childhood's memories form, as it were, a part of the very soul; they grow with her. I could point to the very spot where sat blessed Polycarp the while he conversed with us, I could describe exactly his bearing, his address, his manner of life, his every feature, and the discourses he made to the crowd. Thou needs must well remember how he used to tell us of his intercourse with John and the rest of those that had seen the Lord, and with what a faithful memory he repeated their words; what he had learnt from them respecting our Lord, his miracles, his doctrine,—all these things Polycarp transmitted unto us, as having himself received them from the very men that had beheld with their eyes the Word of Life; now all of what he told us was conformable to the Scriptures. What a grace from God were these conversations of his! I used to listen so eagerly, noting everything down, not on parchment, but on my heart; and now, by the grace of God, I still live on it all. Hence, I can attest before God; if the blessed apostolic old man had heard discourses such as thine, he would have uttered a piercing cry, and would have stopped his ears, saying as was his wont: O God most good, to what sort of times hast thou reserved us! Then would he have got up quickly and would have fled from that spot of blasphemy.”
It is full time to give the liturgical narrative of the history of this great Bishop and Martyr.
Irenӕus, was born in proconsular Asia, not far from the city of Smyrna. From his childhood he had entered the school of Polycarp, the disciple of St. John the Evangelist, and Bishop of Smyrna. Under so excellent a master, he made wonderful progress in the science of religion and in the practice of christian virtue. He was inflamed with an unspeakable desire, to learn the doctrines which had been received as a deposit, by all the disciples of the Apostles; wherefore, although already a master in Sacred Letters when Polycarp was taken to heaven by a glorious martyrdom, he undertook to visit as many as ever he could of these ancients, retentively holding in his memory, whatsoever they spoke unto him. Thus was he afterwards able, to oppose these their words with great advantage against the heresies. For indeed, daily more and more, did heresy spread, to the great detriment of the Christian people, and therefore he thought to make a careful and ample refutation thereof.
Being come into Gaul, he was attached as Priest, to the Church of Lyons, by Saint Pothinus, the Bishop. Labouring in the discharge of which office, both by word and doctrine he showed himself to be a true “zelator of the Testament of Christ,” as the holy martyrs expressed it, who in the time of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor, were strenuously combating for the true religion. For these same Martyrs together with the clergy of Lyons thought they could not put into better hands than his, the affair of the pacification of the Churches of Asia that had been troubled by the heresy of Montanus; for this cause, so dear to their heart, they chose therefore Irenӕus amongst all others, as the most worthy, and sent him to Pope Eleutherius, to implore him to condemn by Apostolic sentence, these new sectaries, and to put an end to the dissensions.
The Bishop Pothinus had died a martyr. Irenӕus having succeeded him, so happy was his episcopacy, owing to his wisdom, prayer, and example, that soon, not only the city of Lyons, but even a great number of the inhabitants of other cities in Gaul, renounced the error of their superstitions and gave their names to be enlisted in the army of Christ. Meanwhile, a contest arose on the subject of the exact day on which Easter should be celebrated; the bishops of Asia were in disagreement with nearly all their colleagues, and the Roman Pontiff, Victor, had already cut them off from the communion of Saints, or was on the point of so doing, when Irenӕus appeared before him, as a seeker of peace, and most respectfully admonishing him, induced him, after the example of the Pontiffs his predecessors, not to suffer so many Churches to be torn away from Catholic unity, on account only of a rite which they said they had received from their fathers.
He wrote many works which are mentioned by Eusebius of Cӕsarea and Saint Jerome, a great part of which have perished through the ravages of time. There are extant, however, five books of his against heresies, written about the year one hundred and eighty, whilst Eleutherius was governing the Church. In the third Book, the man of God, instructed by those who, as it is certain, had been disciples of the Apostles, renders to the Roman Church and to the succession of her Bishops, a testimony surpassing all others in weight and brilliancy; and he says that the Roman Church is the faithful, perpetual, and most assured guardian of divine tradition. Moreover he says that it is with this Church, that every other Church, (namely the faithful who dwell in any other place whatsoever,) must agree, because she hath a principality superior to all others. At length, he was crowned by martyrdom, together with an almost countless multitude whom he had himself brought over to the knowledge and practice of the true faith; he passed away unto heaven, in the year of salvation Two Hundred and two: at which time Septimus Severus Augustus had commanded that all those who persisted in the practice of the Christian religion should be condemned to most cruel torments and to death.
Another account of St. Irenaeus
This saint is himself our voucher that he was born near the times of Domitian, consequently not in the close, as Dupin conjectures, but in the beginning of Adrian's reign, about the year 120. Ha was a Grecian, probably a native of Lesser Asia. His parents, who were Christians, placed him under the care of the great St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. It was in so holy a school, that he learned that sacred science which rendered him afterwards a great ornament of the Church in the days of her splendour, and the terror of her enemies. St. Polycarp cultivated his rising genius, and formed his mind to piety by precepts and example; and the zealous scholar was careful to reap all the advantages which were offered him by the happiness of such a master. Such was his veneration for his sanctity, that he observed every action and whatever he saw in that holy man, the better to copy his example, and learn his spirit. He listened to his instructions with an insatiable ardour, and so deeply did he engrave them in his heart, that the impressions remained most lively even to his old age, as he declares in his letter to Florinus, quoted by Eusebius. St Jerom informs us, that St. Irenӕus was also a scholar of Papias, another disciple of the apostles. In order to confute the heresies of that age which, in the three first centuries, were generally a confused medley drawn from the most extravagant systems of the heathens and their philosophers, joined with Christianity, this father studied diligently the mythology of the Pagans, and made himself acquainted with the most absurd conceits of their philosophers, by which means he was qualified to trace up every error to its source, and set it in its full light. On this account he is styled by Tertullian, “The most diligent searcher of all doctrines.” St Jerom often appeals to his authority. Eusebius commends his exactness. St Epiphanius calls him “A most learned and eloquent man, endowed with all the gifts of the Holy Ghost.” Theodoret styles him, “The light of the western Gauls.”
The great commerce between Marseilles and the ports of Lesser Asia, especially Smyrna, made the intercourse between those places very open. The faith of Christ was propagated in that part of Gaul in the times of the apostles; and from thence soon reached Vienne and Lyons, this latter town being then by the advantage of the Rhone no less famous a mart than it is at this day. While the desire of wealth encouraged many to hazard their persons, amidst the dangers of the seas and robbers, in the way of trade, a zeal for the divine honour and the salvation of souls was a more noble and more powerful motive with others to face every danger and surmount every difficulty for so glorious an achievement. Among the Greeks and Orientals, whom we find crowned with martyrdom with others at Lyons and Vienne, several doubtless had travelled into those parts with a view only to carry thither the light of the gospel. St. Gregory of Tours informs us, that St. Polycarp himself sent St. Irenӕus into Gaul, perhaps in company with some priest He was himself ordained priest of the church of Lyons by St. Pothinus; and in 177, he was sent deputy, in the name of that church, to Pope Eleutherius to entreat him not to cut off from the communion of the Church the Orientals, on account of their difference about the celebration of Easter, as Eusebius and St Jerom take notice. The multitude and zeal of the faithful at Lyons stirred up the rage of the heathens, and gave occasion to a tumultuary and most bloody persecution... St Irenӕus gave great proofs of his zeal in those times of trial; but survived the storm, during the first part of which he had been absent in his journey to Rome. St Pothinus having glorified God by his happy death in the year 177, our saint upon his return was chosen the second bishop of Lyons, in the heat of the persecution. By his preaching, he in a short time converted almost that whole country to the faith, as St. Gregory of Tours testifies. Eusebius tells us that he governed the churches of Gaul; but the faith was not generally planted in the more remote provinces from Marseilles and Lyons before the arrival of St. Dionysius and his companions in the following century.
Commodus succeeding his father Marcus Aurelius in the empire in 180, though an effeminate debauched prince, restored peace to the Church. But it was disturbed by an execrably spawn of heresies, particularly of the Gnostics and Valentinians. St. Irenӕus wrote chiefly against these last, his five books against heresies. The original Greek text of this work was most elegant, as St. Jerome testifies. But, except some few Greek passages which have been preserved, only a Latin translation is extant, in which the style is embarrassed, diffusive, and unpolished. It seems to have been made in the life-time of St Irenӕus, and to be the same that was made use of by Tertullian, as Dom Massuet shows. This Valentinus was a good scholar, and preached with applause, first in Egypt, and afterwards at Rome. We learn from Tertullian, that he fell by pride and jealousy, because another was preferred before him in an election to a bishopric in Egypt. He first broached his heresy in Cyprus, but afterwards propagated it in Italy and Gaul. When Florinus who had been his fellow-disciple under St Polycarp, and was afterwards a priest of the Church of Rome, blasphemously affirmed that God is the author of sin, and was on that account deposed from the priesthood, St Irenӕus wrote him a letter entitled, “On the Monarchy or Unity of God, and that God is not the author of sin,” which is now lost. Eusebius quotes from it a passage in which the holy father in the most tender manner reminds him with what horror their common master St Polycarp, had he been living, would have heard such impieties. Florinus was by this letter reclaimed from his error, but being of a turbulent proud spirit, he soon after fell into the Valentinian heresy. On which occasion St. Irenӕus wrote his Ogdoade, or Confutation of Valentinus's eight principal Ӕônes, by whom that heresiarch pretended that the world was created and governed. In the end of this book, the saint added the following adjuration, preserved by Eusebius: “I conjure you who transcribe this book, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by his glorious coming to judge the living and the dead, that you diligently compare your copy, and correct it by the original. By this precaution, we may judge of the extreme care of the fathers in this respect, and how great their abhorrence was of the impudent practice of some heretics in adulterating writings. One Blastus, a priest at Rome, formed a schism, by keeping Easter on the 14th day of the first moon, and to this schism added heresy, teaching this to be a divine precept. He was deposed from the priesthood, and St. Irenӕus wrote against him his treatise on schism. The dispute about Easter being renewed. Pope Victor threatened to excommunicate the Asiatics; but was prevailed upon to tolerate for some time that practice of discipline by a letter of St. Irenӕus, who entreated and advised that, considering the circumstances, a difference of practice might be allowed, in like manner, as the faithful did not all observe in the same manner the fast of Superposition, or of one or more days without taking any sustenance in holy week, but some kept it of one, others of two, others of more days. Thus the pope's severity prevented these false teachers who pretended the legal ceremonies to be of precept, from drawing any advantage from this practice of the Orientals; and the moderation of St. Irenaeus preserved some from a temptation of sinning by obstinacy and disobedience, till a uniformity in that important point of discipline could be more easily established.
The peace which the Church at that time enjoyed, afforded our saint leisure to exert his zeal, and employ his pen to great advantage. Commodus began his reign with extraordinary moderation; and though he afterwards sunk into debauchery and cruelty, yet he never persecuted the Christians. He was poisoned and strangled in 192, being thirty-one years old, of which he had reigned twelve. Pertinax, an old man, was made emperor by compulsion, but reigned only eighty-seven days, always trembling for his own safety. Being esteemed too frugal and rigorous, he was slain; and the prӕtorian guards, who had often made and unmade emperors at pleasure, whom the never-gainsaying senate confirmed, on that occasion debased to the last degree the dignity of the Roman empire by exposing it to sale by public auction. Didius Julianus and Sulpicianus having several times outbid each other, when the latter had offered five thousand drachms, Julianus at once rose to six thousand two hundred and fifty drachms, which he promised to give every soldier; for which price he carried the empire. The senate confirmed the election, but the purchaser being embarrassed to find money to acquit himself of his engagement, was murdered sixty-six days after; having dearly bought the honour of wearing the purple, and of having his name placed among the emperors. Severus was next advanced to the throne by a part of the troops, and acknowledged emperor by the senate. Niger and Albinus were proclaimed by different armies; but Severus defeated the first by his generals in 194, and the latter himself near Lyons in Gaul, in 197. The Christians had no share in these public broils. Tertullian at that time much extols the fidelity of the Christians to their princes, and says, none of them were ever found in armies of rebels, and particularly, that none of them were ever engaged in the party, either of Niger or of Albinus. It is evident from the whole series of the history of the Roman emperors, that the people, from the days of Augustus, never looked upon that dignity as strictly hereditary. The confirmation of the senate in the name of the whole Roman people, seems to have been regarded as the solemn act of the state, by which the emperor was legally invested with that supreme dignity; on this account the Christians every where acknowledged and faithfully obeyed Severus. He had also other obligations to them. Tertullian tells us, that a Christian, called Proculus, cured him of a certain distemper, for which benefit the emperor was for some time favourable to the Christians, and kept Proculus as long as he lived in his palace. This Proculus was the steward of Euhodus, who was a freed man of the emperor Severus, and by him appointed to educate his son Caracalla. Tertullian mentions this cure as miraculous, and joins it to the history of devils cast out. This cure is confirmed by pagan writers. Yet the clamours of the heathens at length moved this ungrateful emperor, who was naturally inclined to severity, to raise the fifth persecution against the Church; for he was haughty, cruel, stubborn, and unrelenting. He published his bloody edicts against the Christians about the tenth year of his reign, of Christ 202. Having formerly been governor of Lyons, and eye-witness to the flourishing state of that church, he seems to have given particular instructions that the Christians there should be proceeded against with extraordinary severity; unless this persecution was owing to the fury of the particular magistrates and of the mob. For the general massacre of the Christians at Lyons seems to have been attended with a popular commotion of the whole country against them, whilst the pagans were celebrating the decennial games in honour of Severus. It seems to have been stirred up, because the Christians refused to join the idolaters in their sacrifices. Whence Tertullian says in his Apology: “Is it thus that your public rejoicings are consecrated by public infamy?” Ado, in his chronicle, says, St. Irenӕus suffered martyrdom with an exceeding great multitude. An ancient epitaph, in leonine verses, inscribed on a curious mosaic pavement in the great church of St. Irenӕus at Lyons, says, the martyrs who died with him amounted to the number of nineteen thousand. St Gregory of Tours writes, that St. Irenӕus had in a short time converted to the faith almost the whole city of Lyons; and that with him were butchered almost all the Christians of that populous town; insomuch, that the streets ran with streams of blood. Most place the martyrdom of these saints in 202, the beginning of the persecution, though some defer it to the year 208, when Severus passed through Lyons in his expedition into Britain. The precious remains of St. Irenӕus were buried by his priest Zachary, between the bodies of the holy martyrs Ss. Epipodius and Alexander. They were kept with honour in the subterraneous chapel in the church of St. John, till in 1562, they were scattered by the Calvinists, and a great part thrown into the river. The head they kicked about in the streets, then cast it into a little brook; but it was found by a Catholic and restored to St. John's church. The Greeks honour his memory on the 23rd of August; the Latins on the 28th of June. The former say he was beheaded.
It was not for want of strength or courage, that the primitive Christians sat still and suffered the most grievous torments, insults, and death; but from a principle of religion which taught them the interest of faith does not exempt men from the duty which they owe to the civil authority of government, and they rather chose to be killed than to sin against God, as Tertullian often takes notice. Writing at this very time, he tells the Pagans, that the Maurs, Marcomans, and Parthians, were not so numerous as the Christians, who knew no other bounds than the limits of the world. “We are but of yesterday,” says he, “and by to-day we are grown up, and overspread your empire; your cities, your islands, your forts, towns, assemblies, and your very camps, wards, companies, palace, senate, forum, all swarm with Christians. Your temples are the only places which you can find without Christians. What war are not we equal to? And supposing us unequal in strength, yet considering our usage, what should we not attempt? we whom you see so ready to meet death in all its forms of cruelty. Were the numerous hosts of Christians but to retire from the empire, the loss of so many men of all ranks would leave a hideous gap, and the very evacuation would be abundant revenge. You would stand aghast at your desolation, and be struck dumb at the general silence and horror of nature, as if the whole world was departed.” He writes that the Christians not only suffered with patience and joy every persecution and insult, but loved and prayed for their enemies, and by their prayers protected the state, and often delivered the persecutors from many dangers of soul and body, and from the incursions of their invisible enemies the devils. He says: “When we come to the public service of God, we come as it were in a formidable body to do violence to him, and to storm heaven by prayer; and this violence is most grateful to God. When this holy army of supplicants is met, we all send up our prayers for the life of the emperors, for their ministers, for magistrates, for the good of the state, and for the peace of the empire.” And in another place: “To this Almighty Maker and Disposer of all things it is, that we Christians offer up our prayers, with eyes lifted up to heaven; and without a prompter, we pray with our hearts rather than with our tongues; and in all our prayers are ever mindful of all our emperors and kings where-soever we live, beseeching God for every one of them, that he would bless them with length of days, and a quiet reign, a well established family, a valiant army, a faithful senate, an honest people, and a peaceful world, with whatever else either prince or people can wish for. Thus while we are stretching forth our hands to God, let your tormenting irons harrow our flesh, let your gibbets exalt us, or your fires consume our bodies, or let your swords cut off our heads, or your beasts tread us to the earth. For a Christian, upon his knees to his God, is in a posture of defence against all the evils you can crowd upon him. Consider this, O you impartial judges, and go on with your justice, rack out the soul of a Christian, which is pouring out herself to God for the life of the emperor.” He says, indeed, that there are some Christians, who do not live up to their profession; but then they have not the reputation of Christians among those who are truly such; and no Christian had then ever been guilty of rebellion; though even philosophers among the heathens were often stained with that and other crimes. Hippias was killed whilst he was engaged in arms against his country; whereas no Christian had ever recourse to arms or violence, even for the deliverance of his brethren, though under the most provoking and barbarous usage.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Time After Pentecost, Vol. III, Dublin, Edition
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. VI, 1866; and
Saint Joseph Daily Missal, Imprimatur 1957.
Also Read – June 28, 2018: Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles.
St. Irenaeus, pray for us.