Irenaeus was born at Smyrna and was a member of the Christian colony of Greek origin in Asia Minor. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who had heard St. John the Evangelist preach. He was a student, well trained, tremendously protective of apostolic teaching, with more of a desire to win over his opponents than to prove them in error. He emigrated to southern France and eventually visited Rome. He became very well acquainted with various heresies and especially Gnosticism. His treatise against the Gnostics has come down to us in Latin and it contains a systematic presentation of Catholic doctrine and earliest known recording of the history of apostolic succession to the papacy and original Christian (Catholic) episcopal genealogy.
As bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus was especially concerned with the Gnostics, who took their name from the Greek word for knowledge. Claiming access to secret knowledge imparted by Jesus to only a few disciples, their teaching was attracting and confusing many Christians. After thoroughly investigating the various Gnostic sects and their “secret,” Irenaeus showed to what logical conclusions tenets led. These he contrasted with the teaching of the apostles and the text of the Holy Scripture, giving us, in five books, a system of theology of great importance to subsequent times. His work, widely used and translated into Latin and Armenian, gradually ended the influence of the Gnostics.
Irenaeus is without a doubt one of the greatest theologians of the second century. His theology is based on Scripture and Tradition, as all theology should be. His writings include a famous five-volume series, “On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis.” He wrote quite extensively about the heresy of Gnosticism, pointing to the fact that it was a sect with very limited reaches in the Church. These so-called Gnostic Gospels were not universal in nature, like the four authentic Gospels, and were tied to a particular people, message, and time. At the same time, he emphasized the four authentic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Irenaeus writes in his treatise, “Irenaeus Against Heresies,” Book 3, Ch. 3: “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”
And to this day, the Catholic Church holds claim to the ‘unbroken chain’ of apostolic succession from Jesus Christ, to St. Peter, all the way to the current Vicar of Christ, the 266th pope, Pope Francis.
St. Irenaeus suffered martyrdom, but there is no other proof of this. Unfortunately, the tomb and his remains that were beneath an altar in the Church of St. John in Lyons were totally destroyed by the Calvinists, as a result of the Protestant revolt in the 16th century. The church in Lyons was later renamed St. Irenaeus in his honor.
Opening Prayer for Mass:“Father, you called St. Irenaeus to uphold your truth and bring peace to your Church. By his prayers renew us in faith and love that we may always be intent on fostering unity and peace.”