For Christians, the Fathers of the Church play an important role in faith formation. Their writings help us gain insight into our own interior lives, just as they guided early Christians. The writings by the Church Fathers help us to understand that the Catholic Church has always taught certain things, and continues to teach them to this day. Their lives and writings point back to Christ and teach us what it means to be a disciple of the Lord.
“Aside from the New Testament and the documents of various Church councils, our main ways of knowing about the early Church are liturgical sources, such as the Apostles’ Creed, and the writings of the men who became known as the Fathers of the Church,” writes Thomas Mirus. “Originally, it was the bishops who were called Fathers, as religious leaders and chief teachers of the Faith, but eventually the term broadened to include ecclesiastical writers who were not bishops.”
‘Church Father’ isn’t an official title given to people by the Catholic Church. But there are four criteria that help categorize saints as church Fathers. The four things necessary to be considered a Church Father are: orthodoxy, holiness of life, ecclesiastical approval and antiquity.
The four great doctors and Fathers of the West are Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Meanwhile, the four great doctors of the East are John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Athanasius.
But just what did the lives of the the four great Fathers of the Western Church look like? Don’t worry, we’ll get to know the four Fathers of the East soon. But for now, here’s a quick introduction to the Fathers of the West (and their incredible writing!):
One of the most important theological figures of the 4th century, Saint Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan. Born in 340 AD to a Christian family, he was educated in Rome where he studied law, literature, and rhetoric. After his father died, Ambrose received a place on the council of Rome and was elected governor in 372.
When the Bishop of Milan died, Ambrose attended a meeting in efforts to prevent arguments between the Nicene Church and the Arians. While he was defending Christianity, the people gathered called for Ambrose himself to become the next bishop. Since Ambrose wasn’t baptized or trained in theology, he felt severely under-qualified and ran away. But the crowd found him within seven days, and he was baptized, ordained and consecrated as a bishop all at once.
He sold all of his land and gave away his riches to the poor. Ambrose influenced great minds of his time, including Augustine. During his time as bishop, he spent his time fighting against Arianism and preaching the truth of Christianity.
Read more: Faith of our Fathers – On the Eucharist
Ambrose especially preached on the virtue of charity. He encouraged Christians to live out the message of Christ when it came to loving their neighbor. He is known to have once said, “There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”
Born in 347, Saint Jerome was not the the calmest, kindest saint you’ll ever meet. If he was around today, he’d more than likely be the friend correcting the grammar mistakes of all your friends in the group chat. He studied under Aelius Donatus, a famous Roman grammarian. When Jerome was twelve years old, he traveled to Rome to study grammar, philosophy, and rhetoric.
A friendship with a Christian man and frequent trips to the crypt churches encouraged Jerome to become a Christian himself. After his conversion, he dedicated his life to the translation of the Scriptures and the defense of the Virgin Mary.
Known for his quick wit and temper, Saint Jerome was not one to mince words. He encouraged Christians to read scripture and strive for the truth. He wrote, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” but also said, “It is worse still to be ignorant of your ignorance.” His writings would often get him into trouble with fellow Christians of his time.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike admire the conversion and writings of Saint Augustine. Born in 354 AD, he entered the Church when he was thirty-two years old – he was baptized by Saint Ambrose! Before his conversion, he spent twenty years as a Manichean and lived a life of worldly pleasure. Following his conversion, he became a priest and bishop. Now he’s honored as a saint in the Catholic church. He’s also been given the title of a doctor of the church.
In his Confessions, Augustine encouraged readers to spend time reflecting on their own interior life. He wrote: “Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.”
Pope Saint Gregory the Great
Born around 540 in Rome, Gregory was the great-great-grandson of Pope Felix III, son of a Roman senator, and nephew of Saint Pateria. He lived through the Plague of Justinian, which killed a third of Italy. He also survived the barbarian sack of Rome in 546, and the Frank invasion.
At age 33, Gregory followed in the footsteps of his father and became Prefect of Rome, but after the death of his father, Gregory converted their family home in Rome into a monastery. In 590, he was elected pope, but didn’t want the position. Knowing that he was called to lead the Church though, he emphasized missionary work and care of the poor. It’s said that he dined with a dozen poor people at each meal.
He wrote, “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist.”