A Mission to Rome Saved Him
Little is known about the early life of St. Irenaeus. Facts about him are not extremely clear or plentiful. He was born in Asia, most probably in the city of Smyrna, modern-day Izmir in Turkey. He was born around 135-140. In his younger years, Irenaeus attended the school of the bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp, a disciple in his turn of the Apostle and Evangelist John.
Nothing is known about the exact date of his journey from Asia Minor to Gaul. However, Irenaeus must have moved, coinciding with the first development of the Christian community in Lyons. In 177, Irenaeus was listed in the college of presbyters. That same year, he was sent to Rome with a letter from the community in Lyons and was given to Pope Eleutherius.
Iranaeus’ mission to Rome spared him from the persecution under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius which resulted in the death of at least 48 martyrs, including Pontinus of Lyons, the 90-year old bishop, who died from mistreatment in prison. Thus, on his return to Lyons around 178, Irenaeus was appointed bishop of the city.
A Zealous Bishop for Lyons
Irenaeus learned the languages of the people in order to evangelize and teach the Germanic and Celtic tribes, whom the Romans considered barbarians. The new shepherd devoted himself to his episcopal ministry, distinguished on account of his missionary zeal and the theological richness of his doctrines. He had a good sense of proportion, a wealth of doctrine and missionary enthusiasm.
As a writer, Irenaeus pursued a twofold goal: to defend the true and authentic doctrine from the attacks of heretics, and to explain the truth of the faith clearly. His works testified and exactly corresponded with these aims. The second-century Church was threatened by the so-called Gnosis, a doctrine or movement that believed the faith taught in the Church was only symbolic. Gnostics claimed they were the ones who could understand what was behind these symbols, and thus creating an elitist and intellectualist Christianity. He bravely and intelligently fought the heresy of Gnosticism.
Irenaeus’ term as the Bishop of Lyons came to an end around 202 to 203. There is a later tradition that he was martyred under the persecution of Septimus Severus. The bodily remains of St. Irenaeus were buried in a crypt under the altar of what was then called the church of St. John, but was later known by the name of St. Irenaeus himself. This tomb or shrine was destroyed by the Calvinists in 1562, and all traces of his relics seem to have perished. His feast day is June 28.
Five Interesting Facts About St. Irenaeus
- Two of St. Irenaeus’ major writings are still existing today: Against Heresies and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.
- In the course of his writings, St. Irenaeus advanced the development of an authoritative canon of Scriptures, the Creed, and the authority of the episcopal office.
- St. Irenaeus is the patron saint of apologists and catechists.
- The name “Irenaeus” means “Peacemaker”.
- Some sources claim that when he was in Rome, St. Irenaeus studied under St. Justin Martyr, another apologist and philosopher.
Prayer to St. Irenaeus
O God, who called the Bishop Saint Irenaeusto confirm true doctrine and the peace of the Church,grant, we pray, through his intercession,that, being renewed in faith and charity,we may always be intent on fostering unity and concord.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, for ever and ever. Amen.