The Fathers of the Church are the saintly bishops and priests of the first centuries who bear witness to the apostolic tradition and hand it on in their writings and ministry. They identify the canon of Scripture, exemplify the principles of biblical interpretation, shape the early liturgies, compose the creeds, define the rule of faith, and lay the foundations of canon law and the Church’s pastoral activity. Reading them is indispensable for a Catholic education. Perhaps the Fathers of the first two centuries are the best place to start. They are called the Apostolic Fathers because they learnt the faith from the Apostles or their immediate successors. Mike Aquilina has written widely on the Fathers of the Church and will share his pick of the best books on the Apostolic Fathers.
Mike Aquilina is author of more than sixty books, including The Fathers of the Church and The Mass of the Early Christians. He is executive vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He also serves as a contributing editor of Angelus News and general editor of the Reclaiming Catholic History series published by Ave Maria Press. He hosts the “Way of the Fathers” podcast for Catholic Culture. He has co-hosted eleven television series on EWTN. Aquilina is also a poet and songwriter, whose works have been recorded by Dion, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Amy Grant, Bruce Springsteen, and others.
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Who are the Church Fathers and why should we read them? Well, the Fathers are those we venerate in a special way as teachers in the Catholic Church. We venerate them as teachers and witnesses from the first generations of Christianity. It is an important role that they play. They show us what life was like in the Church during the first century, and so on, up to the middle of the eighth century. They reveal the culture as it was in the time of our Lord. We have such a hard time imagining what life was like in those times because we have technologies today that that they could not dream about then. There was no electricity. There were no mass media. There was no easy transportation to get from one place to another. Life expectancy was very short and infant mortality was very high; childhood mortality was very high. It is a world much different from our own. The Fathers give us a window into that world, and it is a window into the world of the New Testament. They were viewing that world—the world of our Lord, of Saint Paul, and the other apostles—from a privileged position. They share that position with us.
They were also the early commenters on Sacred Scripture. They witness to us the way the Church has always interpreted Sacred Scripture and acted upon the content of Revelation. This is also very important to us.
We learn how to live as Christians, as the early Christians did, from the writings of the Church Fathers. They are teachers. They are witnesses. They are the ones who set things down in writing and whose writings have survived.
It took a lot of effort and a lot of trouble to preserve those writings because as I said, there were there were no mass media nor printing presses. Every single page that we have of the Church Fathers—and I have an office full of these books—had to be copied out by hand, laboriously, and at great expense. You had to hire a scribe to do it. They also did it at great risk. It was a capital crime then to own a Christian book.
The Fathers’ works were copied out over and over again because they were not writing on acid-free paper in those days. The copies themselves were perishable. They had to be re-copied again and again, each time at great expense and great risk. Yet the Christians of that time thought it important enough to take that risk, to make that expense, and copy the works of the Fathers, to preserve them for future generations, including our own. This a precious legacy that we have in the Church.
"The Fathers are those we venerate in a special way as teachers in the Catholic Church. We venerate them as teachers and witnesses from the first generations of Christianity"
Unfortunately, if I'm not mistaken, we only we only have a fraction of their writings. Many of them have been lost. That is right. The Fathers refer to other works that we no longer possess. We have lists of books by a certain author, and yet we only possess one book by that author. At the same time, things turn up all the time. In the last hundred years we have discovered long lost works by Saint Augustine or by Melito of Sardis. These things have just turned up in archives around the world or walled up behind the plaster in a monastery. You never know what we are going to find in the future decades.
Fingers crossed. What led you to study the Fathers and write about them? Well, when I was little, I used to read books about archaeology, such as Schliemann's account of his discovery of Troy. I wanted to be like that guy: to go, have your trowel in hand, just dig for a while, discover a great city or some great treasure, or unearth some ancient temple that was stunning in its beauty. As you get older you find out what it is really like. You learn that archaeologists spend weeks on end with a toothbrush and a toothpick, going over little pieces of plaster that they are pulling out of the ground. It is laborious work. It is tedious work. It takes a lot of patience, and I didn't have a lot of patience. But I did have this attraction to antiquity and to artefacts. So, as I got more serious about my faith, I was drawn to the works of the early Church Fathers because they are artefacts. We can touch these works and we are touching something from that period. We are finding those years suddenly illuminated for us, whereas before they had been in obscurity. Now we can see them, and we can see them fairly clearly. That excited me.
The Church Fathers, in addition to being all those wonderful things that I mentioned earlier, are also very lively personalities. Once you start getting into reading them, especially Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch or Clement of Rome, they capture your heart. You know that you want to be friends with these people. You are hooked.
That is how I got hooked. I got to reading the Church Fathers when I was was young. Then, I got into journalistic work. I was writing, doing a lot of freelance work, and struck up friendships with several of the publishers that I was working for. One of them noticed this and asked me to write a popular introduction to the Church Fathers, because, at that time, there was no such book.
I wrote that book, and writing it really changed the course of my life. It surprised everyone by becoming popular and actually selling some units So, my publisher wanted more books on the Church Fathers, and who better to write them than Mike Aquilina?
The thing about this field is that the scholars either do not have time to write popular books or they do not have the inclination. Sometimes they do not have the particular skill that it takes to write for a popular audience. So, I was there to do journalism and have as my beat the first four centuries, and some fun doing it. I have been having fun for the last thirty years or so doing it.
There are various ways of reading the Fathers of the Church. Theologians tend to read the Fathers as witnesses to the apostolic tradition and doctrinal development. They study in detail the theological thought of each Church Father. Is it fair to say, that you, without neglecting the doctrinal side, read them more as a historian? Most of the books that you have selected focus on the historical and social background of the early Christians. Yes, that is true. I am trying to reach ordinary people. As I said, when I started doing this, there just were not popular books about the Fathers. I was being asked to write the books that I needed to read but were just not there. I had to immerse myself in a lot of the academic literature and I enjoyed that. But the books that I produced were aimed at an intelligent, engaged, popular audience. I was trying to reach ordinary people in the pews who have a great curiosity about antiquity.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls after World War Two was a bombshell. Suddenly the Dead Sea Scrolls were everywhere. There was a lot of interest in them. There were books about them. There were conferences about them. It ended up being a cottage industry. This shows us that there is a desire to have this engagement and encounter with the ancients, our most distant ancestors. The sales of that first book, The Fathers of the Church, and then the book that I did as a follow up, The Mass of the Early Christians, have confirmed that there is that interest out there. People want to know these things, and they are willing to plunk down at least a few dollars to learn about them. It is a natural curiosity, that is paired in this case with a supernatural curiosity. These are our fathers in the faith. They are great saints. We want to have that bond with them.
The first book on your list is Rod Bennett’s Four Witnesses. It presents excerpts from the writings of four early Church Fathers and martyrs—Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, and Irenaeus of Lyon—and tells their story. Why have you chosen this book? Well, because that is a book that gives us this imaginative entry into the world of the Fathers. Rod Bennett, just to give a little bit of his background, was a convert to the Catholic faith.
But for many years before his conversion, he edited Wonder Magazine, a magazine of genre fiction. It was for fans of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He had Ray Bradbury writing for him. Rod was operating at a very high level of imaginative retelling. He is a remarkable guy who has a great skill for the novelistic retelling of the stories of the Fathers.
He always tries to use as many of the actual words of the Father as he can, and he incorporates them into a novelistic semi-fictional presentation of what was going on at the time. When you read books like Four Witnesses and its sequel you are encountering the Fathers and getting to know them as characters. You become attached to them and sense a growing friendship with them
The great value of these books is that they include actual excerpts from Fathers, but they are seamlessly woven into the narrative, as if it is all part of the same novel.
I really recommend the works of Rod Bennett, beginning with Four Witnesses, which has changed so many lives.
Often, when you hear conversion stories, especially those of former Protestants, they talk about the books that influence them. Four Witnesses is often on those lists. Last year, I was giving some lectures in Rome. On the flight over, I could see that the man across the aisle was reading Four More Witnesses. So, I said a prayer for that guy and for a fruitful reading of that book.
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