What Makes a Father a Father?

Father’s Day has come and gone, but our Faith is full of fathers worth celebrating all year ’round. Interested in the roots of the Church? Try studying some of the early Fathers.

The May/June issue of LW┬ácelebrates our forefathers–but what exactly makes someone a bona fide “Church Father”? A snippet from Mike Aquilina’s feature article “Keeping the Faith of Our Fathers” gives us the simple criteria for designating the Fathers:

  • Holiness of life. In Latin, the word is sanctitas, which we translate as “sanctity” or even “sainthood.” Thus, most of the Fathers are canonized saints whose memorials you’ll find on the Church’s calendar–the folks whose names begin with “St.”
  • Soundness of doctrine. In the ancient languages, they spoke of orthodoxia, orthodoxy. In English, this has an intellectual ring to it. We tend to think of doctrine in terms of propositions. But at the root “orthodoxy” means more than sound thinking. It means “right praise.” It meant you could worship with the Church because you believed with the Church.
  • Church approval. There is no canonization process for Church-Fatherhood. So how does this approval take place? Well, the Fathers are those who have been quoted authoritatively, down the years, by the councils and revered teachers. If you were cited as an ancient authority by the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, or the Council of Chalcedon in 451, or the Second Vatican Council in 1965, then you have Church approval.
  • Antiquity. Today, when we speak of “antiquity,” we mean a specific period that we call the Age of the Fathers, or the Patristic Era. It streches from the first century through the eighth century. For the Fathers themselves, though, antiquity was a relative term. For St. Irenaues, writing in the late 100s, antiquity encompassed the lifetime of the man who had baptized him–St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Antiquity means these men have stood the test of time. There’s no chance whatsoever that they represent a passing theological or devotional fad. They belong to the ages.


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