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Head shots and body blows: Weekly Message for 06-28-2022
Dear Friends in Christ,
Today we celebrate the memorial of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), toward the start of the second century. He knew St. Polycarp, bishop and martyr of Smyrna, and could remember the spot where he heard him preach and tell stories of learning from St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. Irenaeus was sent to a Roman outpost in Gaul named Lyons as a missionary (modern France). Under the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Church there suffered a brutal persecution, which cost the life of their first bishop, St. Pothinus. Irenaeus, a priest under Pothinus at the time, was probably only spared because he was away in Rome in 177 when the persecution broke out.
Upon returning to Lyons he became its new bishop. Irenaeus faced a different threat than his predecessor: a battle against doctrine and ideas believed and taught by the Gnostics. The Apostles had finished their work on earth, and now the bishops as their successors had to continue the work of sharing the Gospel they had begun.
The Gnostics claimed that knowledge was the key to salvation, a secret religious knowledge that was only shared and understood by an enlightened few. This knowledge would help them transcend the prison of their bodies and the material world, which were innately evil (an error also known as dualism). So the Gnostics tried to give Christianity a one-two punch: a head shot that called the Church’s teaching into question, and a body blow by scorning all things bodily and material as evil and not really part of who we truly are.
Ideas can be attractive and seductive when they appeal to us more than the reality in which we are immersed and live every day. It may not be presented as Gnosticism today, but there are so many ways in the world today to try and “escape reality.” An idea can easily become an ideology, and the basic question is lost in the mental shuffle: is the idea true? Humanity has always sought either a perfectly ordered life or an unbridled one with no lasting consequences.
Gnosticism offered both: it seemed to connect all the dots, and the struggle against passion and the sins of the flesh was explained away by everything bodily being inherently evil. You couldn’t be held responsible for something inherently evil.
Irenaeus in his Against Heresies refuted the Gnostics by pointing out that the Apostles shared all their teachings publicly and openly, as the Lord had taught them (“What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops”—Matthew 10:27). Irenaeus was the first to help Christians see that the teaching handed down by the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, was the sign that that a teaching was truly the Gospel. Teachings that didn’t hearken back to the Apostles and the churches they founded were not the Gospel as the Lord had communicated it to them.
St. Paul said to the Galatians, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8–9).
Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world, Gaudete et Exsultate, called contemporary Gnosticism one of the two subtle enemies of holiness today: “throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity” (n. 37). The Word became flesh out of charity and to enable humanity to experience God once again and be reconciled with him through the Son.
Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict remind us that we don’t stop at knowing about Christ or an idea; we experience him and encounter him:
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, n. 1) and
“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, … No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’ ” (Evangelii Gaudium, 3; cf. St. Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino).
May the Lord bless you this week with a renewed personal encounter of Him.
Father Nikola Derpich, L.C.
Author of Maximizing the Mass