Let’s face it, Jesus lived a long time ago, more than 2,000 years to be exact. The writers of the New Testament did a great job of telling us about the life and times of our Savior. But they could only do so much. In the Bible that I use most of the time, the New Testament is just about 400 pages long. Keeping in mind that many of the Gospel stories are repeated by the four Gospel writers, that’s not much space to tell us the whole story. One of my favorite authors, Tom Clancy, writes huge novels, some over 900 pages, and the stories take place over a few weeks.
Many of our protestant brothers and sisters will tell us that the Bible is all we need. It’s called sola scriptura, the Scriptures alone. But, we don’t agree. There were just too many events in Jesus life (and the time immediately after His death and resurrection) that aren’t in the Scriptures. So, where do we turn for the whole picture. The Catholic Church believes that many men who wrote about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection who are not included in the Canon of Scripture are authoritative as well. These men are called the Early Church Fathers.
Chances are you’ve never heard of many of these writers. Here’s a link to a listing of the fathers along with some of their writings. Some you’ve probably heard of are Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Jerome, Saint John Chrysostom (the patron saint of preachers. His homilies are brilliant.), Saint Justin Martyr, and Saint Leo the Great. Every Church Father isn’t a saint though many of them were.
The earliest Fathers are called Apostolic Fathers because they were taught by the twelve Apostles. For example, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who lived during the first century and was taught by John, wrote on the Eucharist among other things. His is the first known writing that refers to the “Catholic Church.” Remember, he is believed to have died around the year 100. He wrote, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8, J.R. Willis translation.
The perpetual virginity of Mary isn’t clearly spelled out in Scripture, thus the sola scriptura crowd don’t believe in it. But Saint Jerome defined it very clearly in 383. Again, I could go on for several pages about the Fathers and what they wrote, but I’ll just say that the Catholic Church teaches, and rightly so, that everything we need to know to be faithful Catholics wasn’t written in the New Testament. In his 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul wrote, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter”.
Some things were so well known, so widely accepted, that the New Testament authors just never wrote them down. Thankfully we have the Early Church Fathers who did write them down and those writings still exist today.
It’s worth mentioning that in the official prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours, one hour is called “The Office of Readings”. There are two readings each day, one from Scripture and one from the Church Fathers. Granted, these writings have been translated into English from their original language, but it’s really remarkable how contemporary they seem to 21st century readers.
The Church Fathers were cool! The put pen to paper and provided us with a rich tapestry of our Catholic faith. Even cooler, all of these writings are in the public domain. Follow the links in this post and drill down to find some great reading.
Beginning tomorrow, my Top 10 reasons why it’s cool to be Catholic.