Name someone whose writings have shaped Catholic thinking in a BIG way? What’s the first name that pops into your head?
You said “St. Thomas Aquinas,” didn’t you?
Now, what if you were asked to name five saints whose writings have shaped Catholic thinking in a BIG way throughout the centuries.
Your list would probably be something like:
1. St. Thomas Aquinas
2. St. Augustine
3. St. John of the Cross
4. St. Teresa of Avila
5. St. Francis De Sales
Okay. So maybe your list isn’t exactly like that, but it’s probably pretty close. Maybe yours has St. Robert Bellarmine or St. Ignatius of Loyola. Who knows, your list might’ve even included a few modern writers like Archbishop Fulton Sheen, G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Pope John Paul II, or even Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI.
Each of those writers has certainly had a deep impact on the Church’s thinking. But let’s go back even further. Who were some of the writers whose thinking didn’t just impact the Church in a BIG way? Who were some of the writers whose works were formative of the Church’s own self-consciousness?
This list could go on and on, but we’ve selected here the five most prominent Patristic writers (apart from the obvious St. Augustine) that we believe have had the most formative impact on the way the Church in the West perceives Herself and reflects on the mysteries of the Word.
1. St. Cyprian of Carthage
Born around 200 in Carthage, a city of North Africa, Cyprian was a brilliant orator and teacher of rhetoric before converting to Christianity. Shortly after baptism, he was ordained to the priesthood in 248 then elected bishop of Carthage. Cyprian initially attempted to avoid ordination to the bishopric, but was persuaded to accept it by the mass of people and clergy who supported his election.
Cyprian’s writings were more pastoral than dogmatic, and enjoyed such popularity that he became one of the first (and few) Latin theologians whose works were translated into Greek. Always responsive to the issues his congregation faced at the time, Cyprian’s writings deal with the unity of the Church, the role of the bishop, and the need for the Sacraments. As a theologian of unity, he was particularly concerned with the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance. It’s in large part Cyprian’s influence that has led us to the understanding of the nature of the Church and the role of the Papacy we have today. His most famous treatise is On the Unity of the Catholic Church.
2. St. Jerome
Ever heard the saying, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”? Yeah. That comes from St. Jerome.
Jerome is best known for two things: His love of Scripture and his sharp tongue.
Born between 340 – 347, Jerome received a solid education in both Christian and secular subjects before being sent by his father to Rome for further studies. There he became fluent in both Latin and Greek.
In 370 he became a monk in Aquileia, and in 374 he moved to Antioch. There he remained in the desert for four years, fasting, praying, and combating temptation. It was there that he struggled to learn Hebrew from a Jewish convert to Christianity. He didn’t take to Hebrew as quickly or with as much enthusiasm as he did to Latin and Greek, and confesses that he gave it up in despair several times, only to try again later.
After re-entering public life, Jerome wrote a series of commentaries on Scripture, and eventually embarked on a complete translation of the Scriptures from their original Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin. The resulting translation, known as the “Vulgate,” is the standard translation of Scripture for the Latin-speaking Church to this day.
3. Pope St. Gregory the Great
Gregory was born to a wealthy Roman family in around 540. As the son of a senator, he received the best education and went on to work as an administrator for the city of Rome. But he gave that up in 574 to become a monk.
In 590, to his own horror, Gregory was elected to the papacy. Although he longed to return to his life as a monk, he didn’t let nostalgia get in the way of his duties as pope. Quite the contrary. Gregory was the first to refer to the pope as the “Servant of the Servants of God.” In this spirit of service, he is largely responsible for breaking Western Christianity out of the confines of the Roman Empire, sending missionaries to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons, and earning himself the title “Apostle of the English.”
As the first pope to have lived as a monk before his election to the papacy, Gregory did everything he could to spread monasticism in the West. Although he himself never lived under the Rule of St. Benedict, he was Benedictine at heart. His famous Dialogues, which contain the Life of St. Benedict, is the primary source for our knowledge of Benedict’s life.
He also had great concern for the liturgy, particularly liturgical music. Most notably Gregory codified a form of plainchant in the Roman Church that bears his name even today – “Gregorian chant.”
In spite of his busy schedule as pope, Gregory found time to write extensively. In addition to his Dialogues, he penned a series of Homilies on the Gospels and his famous Moralia on the Book of Job. Throughout the Middle Ages his Pastoral Rule was the standard by which priests and bishops strived to live. He also wrote or dictated some 854 letters that covered nearly every detail of Christian life. His concern was to present the Catholic Faith in a way that was easily understood by all.
4. St. John Cassian
You’ve never heard of him, right?
Don’t worry. Most Catholics haven’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is one of the most influential writers in the Catholic spiritual tradition.
Simply put, it’s thanks to him that the monasticism that emerged in the deserts of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt made its way to the West.
Born around 360 in eastern Romania, John Cassian became a monk in a monastery in Bethlehem before eventually making his way to the deserts of Egypt. It was there that he became the student of Evagrius Ponticus, from whom he learned the ways of the spiritual life.
Around the year 400, after being ordained deacon by St. John Chrysostom, he was sent to Rome as part of a delegation, and there spent the rest of his life.
His two primary writings are the Institutes of the Monastic Life and the Conferences of the Egyptian Monks. The Institutes largely sets out exact rules for monastic living, whereas the Conferences is a collection of conversations John had with various spiritual fathers in the Egyptian deserts. In the West, the Institutes became the foundation for many monastic rules, most notably the Rule of St. Benedict. The Conferences, on the other hand, had a deep formative influence on the spirituality of saints as varied as Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Dominic, John of the Cross, and others.
Because of the formative influence of his writings in the West, he is regarded as the founding-father of Western monasticism.
5. St. Ambrose of Milan
Born in 340, Ambrose was serving as “advocate” in Milan when he was ordained bishop by popular demand in 374. However, before being ordained bishop, he first had to be baptized.
As a newly baptized Christian and newly ordained bishop, Ambrose recognized his lack of knowledge in the Faith and immediately undertook a study of the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church.
He had a high regard for celibacy chosen for the sake of the Kingdom, and would often preach on the topic. Mothers were so concerned that their daughters would be persuaded by his sermons to enter a convent, that they often kept them away from church when Ambrose preached. At the request of his sister, St. Marcellina, Ambrose collected his homilies on virginity into a treatise now known as On Virginity
Ambrose was a staunch defender of orthodoxy in the face of the Arian heresy. Refusing to obey secular law and give up a single church building to the Arians, he faced the threat of death. He and his entire congregation barricaded themselves in the church from January until after Easter, during which time Ambrose instructed the congregation on the Psalms and taught them to sing hymns that he himself composed.
In addition to his numerous writings, there is a ritual tradition in Milan and a unique style of liturgical chant that both trace their roots back to Ambrose.
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