Today is the feast of Irenaeus, a saint worth knowing. Around the year 100 he was born in Smyrna on the shore of the Aegean Sea where as a boy he was devoted to an old priest called Polycarp, who as a boy had been devoted to the Apostle John. He
loved every story about John and Jesus that he heard from that “Grand Old Man, Polycarp.”
Now, the port of Smyrna had a trading relationship with the French city of Lyons, and Irenaeus’s life as a merchant had him moving to Lyons where he found the Christians in confusion. A Christian named Montanus, along with a woman named Priscilla had spent a year with them, telling them versions of the Bible that differed from anything they had heard. Montanus and Priscilla swore they were receiving new Bible stories directly from the Holy Spirit. The Christians of Lyon who believed Montanus broke away, coming to be known as the Montanists.
Irenaeus assured the old Christians that the stories and the teachings they lived by were completely in accord with the tales of Jesus and St. John he had heard from Polycarp. However, he respected the sincerity of the Montanists, and by openness with them he brought them to live at peace with the Christians. His solid foundation in Christianity along with his understanding ways meant so much to all factions that they came together demanding that he become their bishop. He reluctantly accepted, but he was not left in peace.
The Pope heard about Irenaeus’s ability to deal with Christians with odd ideas, and he sent for him to come to Rome to deal with a strange group who were different from the Montanists, and who were splitting Roman Christians into factions.
This strange group were something like astrologers. I understand Astrology to be a belief that the stars and planets by their relative positions communicate good and bad news to people. This Roman group went further than that. They were saying that angels of more and less power controlled the stars and planets, and they were communicating new versions of the Bible to their followers. They produced several new gospels that conflicted with what had been handed down through the Church.
Those people were known as the Knowing Ones. The Greek word for “I know” is gnosco. They remind me of three-year-old girls who get the idea they can’t be told anything new. Whatever you say to one of them she insists, “I know. I know.” In Greek that would be, “Gnosco, gnosco.” Those Romans were called Gnostics.
Irenaeus spent a few years visiting with groups of Gnostics, reporting on what they were saying, leaving us more than a hundred pages of notes that gathered in a book is called, “Irenaeus Against the Heresies.”
His great service to the Christian cause is that he was a direct link to John and Jesus through Polycarp. As such he established the value of Christian teachings that have been handed down from the Apostles, assigning special value to traditions handed down from Peter and Paul in Rome.