In one of our final classes in seminary, we look back to the earliest leaders of the Christian faith: the Church Fathers. These men learned from Peter, James, John, Matthew, and other Apostles and became their successors as the bishops of Rome, Antioch, and more. In fact, we can trace back our own Bishop Thompson’s predecessors to the very men we are talking about in classes, because every bishop is ordained by other bishops who have come before. Amazing!
As I was reading about some of these Church Fathers, several themes came out: the unity of the believers, the importance of understanding what Jesus taught, and learning how begin living as “Christians,” because there weren’t Christians before to learn from.
St. Ignatius of Antioch was the third bishop of Antioch—Peter was the first. St. Ignatius first called the Church “catholic”, which means “universal”. He aimed at bringing unity to the Body in an age where there was no mass-media of Church teaching, no centralized “Creed,” and very few elder Christians to raise new Christians in the Faith.
St. Justin, martyr, and St. Clement of Alexandria, bishop, each found themselves in a twofold role as early leaders of Christianity. First, they had to defend the faith, and second, they needed to present it in an attractive way. Each relied upon philosophy for the former, convincing people that Christianity was not opposed what we can know.
Further still, they argued Christianity was indeed entirely more reasonable than pagan beliefs. Then, not only did they need to make the case for giving the faith a chance, they needed to teach about it to those now disposed to hear. St. Justin taught listeners that Christianity was for all, not the property or way of a few. St. Clement suggested steps in the journey of discipleship: baptism, knowledge, and finally, becoming like God by how we live.
Reflecting on the lives and teaching of men like these, men who were among the first priests and bishops, we begin to see that our priests and bishops are not so different today. These Church Fathers were tasked with defending the Church against internal and external division, and with presenting the faith in an attractive way. Our pastors carry on the same mission that all the world may come to know Christ and live in Him. The witness of the Church Fathers inspires us to continue this mission.