The Four Fathers

The Four Fathers March 3, 2024

Art by Leonhard Niederwimmer.

Plato once observed that beginnings are the most critical aspect of any endeavor. This principle may be applied to religions as much as to any other enterprise. Doubtless, several factors have led to the growth and enduring success of Catholicism, but the work and sacrifice of many early Catholics cannot be understated. 

In this essay, I will briefly examine four men whose lives of virtue and holiness made them not only saints but fathers of the Church. It should be noted that, unlike sainthood, there is no fixed criteria for being considered a Church father. Nevertheless, Church fathers are generally those teachers and writers of the early centuries whom the Church recognizes as her special witnesses of the faith. 

Finally, I have placed the four in order of their birth. This categorization is not intended to indicate the effect or influence that these men have had on Catholicism.

Saint Ambrose 

Perhaps more well-known for his influence on another Church father, Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose would immensely influence Catholicism and theology in his own right.

Born Aurelius Ambrosius in present-day Germany, Ambrose’s childhood would have exposed him more to the politics of the Roman Empire than to the precepts of Catholicism. Ambrose’s father was a Roman prefect, and Ambrose spent his formative years in Rome. Influenced by his older sister, a nun, Ambrose would eventually be named Bishop of Milan. In an effort to detach from worldly concerns, the newly minted Bishop gave away his money and land to the poor. 

While much can be said of Ambrose, I will highlight two facets of his life that have profoundly affected the Church. The first aspect was the manner in which Ambrose framed the relationship between the Church and government. Prior to the influence of Christianity, it was common practice in the Roman Empire to equate the Caesars with the gods of the Roman pantheon. It was Ambrose who argued successfully that even Caesar was subject to “orders from Christ.” A consequence of this change meant that the leader of the world’s greatest empire was subject to the influence of the Church.

Ambrose’s second significant accomplishment was his opposition to the Arian movement. Arianism posited that Jesus was a created being and, therefore, not equivalent to God. Despite being condemned by the Council of Nicea in 325, Arianism remained popular in the Roman Empire. However, owing to Saint Ambrose’s ardent defense of the Holy Trinity, Arianism would soon evanescence.

Saint Jerome 

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, soon to be known as Saint Jerome, was born in 347 in present-day Croatia. Eventually sent to Rome to study classical literature and rhetoric, Jerome was baptized by Pope Liberius in 366.

While in Rome, he studied Greek, Latin, history, and philosophy. He developed the practice of copying most of the works he read. Leaving Rome in his early twenties, he traveled to Trier in Gaul and transcribed the works of Saint Hilary. After returning to Italy, he continued his theological studies. 

In 382, Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to translate the Bible from Greek into Latin. The process of translating Scripture would take some twenty years. In addition to his writing, Saint Jerome founded several monasteries, a covenant, and a hostel for pilgrims.

Nevertheless, Saint Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin marks his legacy. The significance of Jerome’s rendering of the Bible in Latin lies in the fact that it allowed the entirety of the Roman Empire, including much of what today is Western Europe, access to Scripture.

Saint Jerome was named a doctor and father of the Catholic Church in 1989.

Saint Augustine 

It has been said that a saint is a sinner who perseveres. Perhaps no other saint in the Church’s history more exemplifies this philosophy than Augustine. Born in North Africa in 354, Augustine’s youth was marked by instability and the impetuousness common to the young. Augustine’s irreligiosity was a source of pain for his mother, Saint Monica, who prayed for his conversion. Her prayers were answered when Saint Ambrose finally baptized Augustine in 387. 

Of the many accomplishments, Augustine was among the first to synthesize philosophy (he was influenced by Plato) and Catholic theology. A prodigious writer, Augustine authored approximately one thousand documents on philosophy and theology. Two of his most famous works, Confessions and City of God, have profoundly influenced Catholicism and philosophy. 

Confessions is almost two different books. The first half or so is autobiographical. The second half of the book is a theological and philosophical treatise on the nature of eternity, as well as a commentary on the Book of Genesis.

The City of God presents two conflicting world views. The first, The City of God, is characterized by devotion to God. By contrast, The City of Man is a world dominated by self-love and self-deification. Augustine concludes that since human beings are made for God, they can only be happy in The City of God.

Lastly, Saint Augustine is credited with his opposition to Pelagianism. Pelagianism argued that human nature was not fallen – they denied original sin – and a belief in human perfectibility. Augustine insisted that we could only be saved and perfected through the action of God’s grace.

Saint Gregory

One could suggest that Saint Gregory had the Papacy in his blood. Born into a wealthy family in 540, Gregory’s great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III. It is thought that Gregory was also related to Pope Agapetus I. 

Owing to his station in life, Gregory was well-educated and may have trained for a career in law. Caught between a life of religious contemplation and public duty, Gregory would eventually enter into monastic life. He would rise to the Papacy in 590.

Gregory would face immense political difficulties as Pope. Despite dealing with the threats posed by the Byzantine Empire and the Lombard Kingdom, Pope Gregory had a substantial and permanent influence on Catholicism.

A passionate advocate of missionary work, Pope Gregory sent missionaries to Anglo-Saxon Britain. Gregory made notable changes and additions to the Roman liturgy, from moving the Our Father to its present place in the Mass to forbidding subdeacons from wearing chasubles. Pope Gregory was canonized after he died in 604.

Catholicism owes much to its rich history and tradition. In this essay, I have sought to provide a brief overview of the four fathers of the Catholic Church, whose place in history is fixed and whose effect on Catholicism remains in place.

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