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Lesson Connections, Living Your Faith, The Vatican

Learning from the Doctors of the Church

  • Matthew Bunson, OSV Newsweekly
  • |
  • January 14 2015
CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Recognized for their extraordinary contributions to the Faith, the lives of these holy men and women instruct us on the path to heaven

The 35 Doctors of the Church — that is the gallery of four women and 31 men honored by the Church for their special contributions to the Faith — can be an intimidating group. The list includes theological titans such as Sts. Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Bonaventure, Teresa of Ávila and Robert Bellarmine, as well as beloved saints such as Thérèse of Lisieux, John of the Cross and Catherine of Siena.

Their writings are profound, enriching and honored justifiably for their insights into the Faith and human experience.

But the question is, how relevant are the Doctors to the average person today? After all, what does St. Athanasius, who died 1,700 years ago, have to offer today’s technological and increasingly secular world? Or what about Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most recently named Doctors? She was a medieval German abbess who had visions. What does she have to say to the modern mind?

The answer, of course, is much. In fact, they have surprising lessons for today. The Doctors are proof that the teachings of the Church are meaningful in every era, including our own. They help us to see that we, too, can live the Faith in our time and also help others to encounter Jesus Christ. This is the great task of the New Evangelization.

Like us, the Doctors were also very human. They had failings and foibles. Some, such as Augustine, were terrible sinners at one point in their lives. Others, such as Jerome, dealt with anger. We can see in their lives many of our own personal challenges, and we can benefit greatly from their spiritual experience.

Here are 10 Doctors whose lives offer guidance in how we should live and love authentically.

What is a Doctor of the Church?

The title of Doctor of the Church has been granted to only 35 men and women in Church history. Traditionally, it is bestowed on the basis of three requirements: holiness, eminence in doctrine, and a formal declaration by the Church. Every Doctor is first and foremost a saint. Were they sinless? No, not at all. The lives of many Doctors demonstrate a powerful conversion from sin or struggles with personal failings. The Doctors, however, labored to overcome sin in their own lives.

The Doctors are required to have excelled in their knowledge and teaching. Importantly, however, their writings are not deemed infallible, nor are they considered completely free of error.

Model of fortitude

St. Athanasius (296–373)

“It is a fact, brothers and sisters, that the path of the saints in this life is one full of troubles.”

St. Athanasius certainly was no stranger to tragedy and suffering. The Bishop of Alexandria, a theologian and a firm adherent of Christian orthodoxy in the fourth century, Athanasius devoted his life to the defeat of the heresy of Arianism that called into question the very divinity of Christ. And he paid a heavy price.

A native of Alexandria, he became a bishop in 328 and spent the rest of his life combating Arianism. The scheming Arians secured his deposition and exile four times; after one of which he was hunted with such venom that he hid out for a time in his father’s tomb. Athanasius endured banishments, threats upon his life and calumny by his enemies. He remained steadfast, however, and his efforts helped lay the groundwork for the triumph of Orthodox Christianity at the Council of Constantinople in 381, years after his death. Today, he remains a role model for those enduring injustice and persecution.

Caring about the little ones

Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540–604)

One of four Latin Doctors of the Church, Gregory was pope from 590 to 604 and is only one of four popes honored with the title of “the Great.”

A member of a noble family, Gregory could have pursued a brilliant political career, but he renounced all worldly interests and used his large inheritance to feed the poor and to establish seven monasteries, including one in Rome on his own estate. He entered the Roman community himself around 574 and was soon a trusted adviser to the popes.

Against his desires, he was unanimously chosen pope at a time of great crisis. The Germanic tribe of the Lombards threatened the Eternal City, and Rome itself suffered from a vacuum of political leadership. He thus assumed many civil powers, saved Rome from Lombard attack by a peace agreement, reorganized the papal lands, introduced reforms in religious practice and gave a major impetus to missionary activity by sending St. Augustine of Canterbury to the British Isles in 596. He also is credited with the creation of what came to be called Gregorian chant.

For all of his immense achievements, he never forgot the poor. Gregory called himself Servus Servorum Dei (“Servant of the Servants of God”) and was much concerned with the needs of the poor, forgotten and defenseless. He regularly invited the poorest of the city to eat with him and once performed days of personal penance when he learned that a beggar actually had starved to death in Rome.

Dealing with anger

St. Jerome (c. 342–420)

The patron of the Church’s biblical scholars and all librarians, Eusebius Hieronymus — Jerome — is honored for translating the Bible into Latin. Such was his genius that St. Augustine said of him, “What Jerome is ignorant of, no mortal has ever known.”

A saint, Father of the Church and Doctor, Jerome was also renowned for his bluntness, sharp tongue and fiery personality. Fighting to overcome his own weaknesses and to live as an authentic Christian, he moved to the desert of Syria for solitude and penance. His study of Hebrew, it was said, began as part of his effort to overcome the terrible temptations of the flesh. After sojourns in Constantinople and then Rome, he returned to the East in 384 and settled in the cave in Bethlehem revered as the birthplace of Christ. His rooms can be visited there today. He spent the rest of his life working on his translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, for centuries the official text of Scripture.

Jerome was famous for his friendships with some of the leading figures of the age, but he was also infamous for his temper, a failing that, like so many other men and women, plagued him all of his days. His anger caused rifts with those he cared about, but he was just as swift to feel remorse and try to make amends. It was a cross for him, however, and tradition says that he regularly beat himself in the breast with a rock every time he lost control of his temper.

Herald of the New Evangelization

St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)

“If all preachers and confessors would discharge their duties as they should, the whole world would be holy!”

One of the Church’s greatest moral theologians and the founder of the Redemptorists, Alphonsus Liguori understood well the power of conversion, for he underwent it himself. The son of nobility in Naples, he received a doctorate of law at the age of 16 and was an eminently successful lawyer for eight years. But he also came to enjoy society, fame and success. In 1723, he lost a very important case and abandoned the law. Entering the religious life, he formed the Redemptorists in 1732, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, dedicated to preaching and missionary work among the poor. Much as we are called to do today with the New Evangelization, he labored to bring the Gospel to simple people through straightforward preaching, once declaring that he had never given a sermon that could not be appreciated by the most humble old woman in the crowd.

He also left behind a rich system of moral theology that understands the problem of sin in the lives of ordinary people. Bringing people to conversion, he taught, happens when “God’s holy love enters a heart.” And so, he said, a preacher should aim not to bully but to “leave his audience inflamed with holy love.”

The power of prayer

St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582)

“It is love alone that gives worth to all things.”

A Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic, Teresa was the first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church.

Born into a respected family in Ávila, Spain, she entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation at Ávila in 1535 and in 1555 underwent a conversion while praying before a statue of the scourged Christ.

She brought needed reform to the Carmelite Order despite fierce opposition, and she is honored for her mystical writings, especially El Castillo Interior (“The Interior Castle”).

For Teresa, prayer is absolutely essential to the Christian life and discipleship. She taught that praying “means being on terms of friendship with God frequently conversing in secret with him who, we know, loves us” (Vida 8, 5).

Writing about that relationship, Teresa added something that people today — awash in technology, gadgets, fashion and social media — have forgotten: “Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”

Living in humility

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897)

“If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.” Called the “Little Flower,” Thérèse of the Child Jesus was a Carmelite nun and mystic and is one of the most beloved saints of the modern era. The daughter of Blessed Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin, she entered the Carmelite convent of Lisieux in 1888, and spent the rest of her life in cloister. Her deceptively simple life included daily work, prayer and devotion, and she died from tuberculosis, an illness that had already ended her hopes of serving in China. Owing to her extraordinary spiritual development, she was instructed by her superiors to write an autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” that has become a spiritual classic. Thérèse demonstrates that even a seemingly ordinary, insignificant person can achieve sanctity by the little way, doing everything out of perfect love for God. As she wrote, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

The power of forgiveness

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–386)

Like Athanasius, Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem during the troubled era of the Arian Controversy, had much to forgive. A native of Jerusalem, Cyril became bishop in that city around 349 or 350 and was soon confronted by the Arians. Over the next 35 years he spent as bishop, Cyril was in exile for 16 of them and faced slander from his enemies and rival bishops. By the time of his return after his final time in exile from 367-378, he found his beloved Jerusalem in a state of severe moral decay and divided bitterly into religious and social factions. Cyril gave himself completely to healing the city and its wounded Christian community, forgiving those who had conspired against him. For his efforts, he was suspected himself of heresy and was compelled to go to the Council of Constantinople in 381 where he recited the creed used in Jerusalem to proclaim Christ’s divinity. Cyril’s greatest contributions to Church teaching were his “Jerusalem Catecheses,” instructional addresses for baptismal candidates and the newly baptized after Easter. They remain an important tool for how to instruct catechumens and especially how to help them mature as new Catholics. While he had good reason to be bitter, St. Cyril chose the way of patience and forgiveness. As he taught his catechumens, “The offenses committed against us are slight and trivial, and easily settled; but those which we have committed against God are great, and need such mercy as His only is” (Lecture XXIII, No. 16).

Openness to all of God's creation

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

A German mystic and abbess, called the “Sibyl of the Rhine” because of her profound visions, Hildegard was also a botanist, chemist, poet, playwright and hymnographer. Raised by the Benedictines, she became an abbess in 1136, moved her community to Rupertsberg, near Bingen, and established another house in 1165. Famed for her wisdom, holiness and visions, she traveled throughout Germany at the request of the popes preaching reforms in the Church, and she corresponded with leading figures and personalities of the time, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Emperor Frederick I. The famous visions were described in three books, the most famous of which was the “Scivias.”

Beyond her visions, Hildegard was a truly gifted natural scientist who used her talents in a host of areas, including medicine and music. Always, though, she remained obedient to the teachings of the Church and had her eyes focused on the creator of the splendors she studied. Hildegard is an example of how faith and science are truly compatible.

Living with our past

St. Augustine (354–430)

A Father of the Western Church, Augustine had an enormous influence on Christian theology and Western civilization. He is also a guide for personal conversion and overcoming a difficult, even sordid past. The life story of Augustine is well known. Despite his immense intellectual gifts, he sank into a dissolute existence so eloquently expressed with regret in his work, “The Confessions.” He took a mistress, fathered an illegitimate son, and wasted his time with the empty sect of the Manichaeans and with a stubborn refusal to recognize the truth of Christianity. Under the influence of the formidable St. Ambrose, archbishop of Milan, he was baptized, to the joy of his long-suffering mother, St. Monica. He returned to Africa, was soon ordained a priest and then became bishop of Hippo. His writings encompass 113 books, 218 letters and some 500 sermons. His most famous works were “Confessions” and “City of God.” For anyone struggling with a difficult past, the “The Confessions” — with its searing frankness in discussing sin, weakness, pride and repentance — provides hope for personal conversion, a new life of grace in the sacraments and the power of God’s loving mercy.

Fostering a love of the Eucharist

St. John of Ávila (1499–1569)

St. John of Ávila shaped the lives and spiritual development of some of the greatest saints of all time, including Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, Peter of Alcántara and Francis Borgia. A priest, spiritual director and amazing preacher, he is also a powerful teacher for how we must love the Eucharist.

The only child of wealthy parents of Jewish background, he hoped to become a missionary in the New World, but he was ordered instead to remain in Spain and evangelize in Andalusia, a region that only recently had been reclaimed to the Christian faith by Spain after centuries of control by the Moorish Kingdoms. John accepted in complete obedience, and his remarkable preaching earned him the title “Apostle of Andalusia.” A renowned spiritual director, he authored Audi, filia (“Listen, daughter”), a treatise on Christian perfection. John also saw a holy and faithful presbyterate as crucial to authentic renewal in the Church and so supported the idea of formal seminaries, which became one of the major accomplishments of the Council of Trent.

Connected closely to his love of the priesthood was his special commitment to the Eucharist. He typically spent two hours in prayer in anticipation of the sacrament and an hour after for thanksgiving. He wrote to a young priest who had sought his advice, “If sanctity is not required to touch the most pure body of Christ our Lord, the holiest thing of all, I do not know for what it is needed on earth.”


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