“What is ecclesiastical history but a record of the ever-doubtful fortune of the battle, though its issue is not doubtful? Scarcely are we singing Te Deum, when we have to turn to our Misereres: scarcely are we in peace, when we are in persecution: scarcely have we gained a triumph, when we are visited by a scandal. Nay, we make progress by means of reverses; our griefs are our consolations; we lose Stephen, to gain Paul, and Matthias replaces the traitor Judas.
It is so in every age; it is so in the nineteenth century; it was so in the fourth; and about the fourth I am proposing to write.”
Take this as Newman’s summary of his summary that is The Church of the Fathers.
As he says in the introduction to his pithy book, Newman seeks to give an historical account of the Church of the fourth century. He breaks down the Church at this time into three stages: “ the first is the history of the Roman Empire become Christian; the second, that of the indefectible Church of God seeming to succumb to Arianism; the third, that of countless barbarians pouring in upon both Empire and Christendom together.” He then spends the rest of the book describing these three stages through the eyes of six Saints who had a hand in shaping the Church during this century: Basil, Gregory, Antony, Augustine, Demetrias, and Martin.
The Church of the Fathers, though, is not mere history, though it is historical. It is not a biography, though it is biographical. Newman himself admits that he is attempting in this work “neither the grand outlines, nor the living details of the century, but some scenes or passages which chronologically or morally belong to it.” In keeping with Newman’s idea, let’s not make any grand outlines of his work here, but only reveal a couple of scenes that reveal his triumph in it, a couple of passages that may be minor in the grand scheme of his book but nonetheless contribute to his historical-biographical objective.
One enjoyable aspect of The Church of the Fathers was Newman’s personal commentary of the various writings that he recites within. While each Saint that is discussed always includes extensive quotations from their own letters he never leaves such quotations to speak for themselves. This will be a relief for people like me who often read a historical text and miss or fail to understand many of the details that make the text important for whatever point is trying to be proven.
For example, after quoting a letter that Gregory wrote to Basil concerning the latter’s strained relationship with a Bishop Eusebius, Newman says, “It is impossible not to be struck with Gregory’s delicacy in this letter, in which he speaks as if he himself were estranged from Eusebius, as well as Basil, though he stood at the time high in his favor.”
I was, out of ignorance, not struck by such delicacy until Newman pointed it out. Then the scales fell from my eyes.
While the ancient writings that he quotes in the book are themselves edifying, his commentaries, such as the one above, illuminate them for the reader who may otherwise miss some subtle information which contributes to his or her understanding of the text.
One other delightful facet of this book was Newman’s humanizing of the Saints. Like his cogent commentaries, such humanizing is scattered throughout and is brought up often enough to be noticed and appreciated.
In one of their correspondences, for instance, Basil describes to Gregory the area, named Pontus, that Basil retreated to for several years, using poetic language and admiration to describe the land around him. Newman says that Gregory, in response, “satirizes, point by point, the picture of the Pontic solitude which Basil had drawn to allure him….He [Gregory] ends thus: – ‘This is longer perhaps than a letter, but shorter than a comedy. For yourself, it will be good of you to take this castigation well; but if you do not, I will give you some more of it.’”
I enjoyed the reminder that Saints in Heaven were not only not perfect on Earth but also engaged in their own humanity in ways the rest of us do, such as through sarcasm, berating, desiring material goods, etc.. Of course in theory and teaching all Catholics know Saints are human, make mistakes, and so on. But in practice it is easy to engage in Hero-Worship when we are in love with an individual, and the Saints are no exception.
To be clear, Newman does not make this his focus; rather, he focuses, as he should, on their holiness and their contribution to the Church in the Fourth century. The Saints are [S]aints for a reason, after all; we should look up to them as the example of Holiness that God calls all of us to. I suppose I just appreciated this slight deviation from the norm because when discussing the lives of the Saints it is easy to slip into the false notion that we can never attain their level of love for God on this side of Heaven. By being reminded that the Saints are human it is, in theory and in practice, a little more evident that, by God’s grace, we can grow to love him just as much as They did without necessarily having to spend the next thousand years in Purgatory.
There are many other gems to appreciate throughout The Church of the Fathers. Overall, though, if you enjoy Newman you should read this book, and if you have never read Newman and are nervous about starting with his heavier work, this book is a good book to start with.