The Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar celebrates St. Irenaeus of Lyons on June 28th. Born in 130, Irenaeus was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. This means that St. Irenaeus had a connection to the apostolic Church. He became the bishop of Lyons and was a noted theologian, who defended the church against many rampant heresies in his voluminous work Adversus Haereses, in addition to his other writings including the Presentation of the Apostolic Preaching. His theological writings made a major contribution to the theological tradition and are still used to this day. Not only did he make a contribution to theology at large, but his writings tell us a lot about Mary in the early days of the Church and still influence our thoughts about her today.
Here are a few quick Marian facts about St. Irenaeus.
1. The Father of Mariology
While Francisco Suarez is noted as the Father of Systematic Mariology, many have called St. Irenaeus the early Father of Mariology. In his use of the scriptures, Irenaeus is the first to make a significant contribution to the study of Mary, affording his recognition as one of the first Mariologists. Frederick Jelly, O.P. noted in his classical Mariological text Madonna “with [Irenaeus], Mariology was given birth” (71).
Previous written references to Mary noted her relationship to Christ as virgin and mother. Other Apostolic Fathers (e.g. St. Ignatius of Antioch) and Apologists (e.g. Justin Martyr) made references to the Blessed Virgin, but none developed such a systematic view of Mary’s contribution in salvation history.
2. The Early Church Thought About Mary
In his work, A Complete Mariology, C.X.J.M. Friethoff, O.P. states that the “oldest depositions we possess of tradition place Mary in an antithetic parallel with Eve, and therefore call her the New Eve” (33). Three early writers made reference to the New Eve: Justin Martyr
(d. 165), Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202), and Tertullian (d. 222). For Friethoff, this was an important distinction because it meant the notion of Mary as New Eve encompassed three continents respectively—Europe (Rome), Asia, and Africa.
Some have noted the significance of Justin Martyr’s reference to the Eve/Mary parallel because he was not far removed from the actual events of redemption, that is, the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Freithoff concludes that readers of Irenaeus, Justin, or Tertullian presumably knew about the Eve-Mary parallel because they do not expound upon it, they presuppose its knowledge among the faithful. As such, he believes that the New Eve was a part of the early proclamation of the gospel in the nascent Church. And if this is indeed true, Irenaeus would have received the teaching from either John or Polycarp. John Henry Newman believed that Irenaeus’ use of Mary as the New Eve is the first meditation about her and her mission in the Church which has been given to us by the Church Fathers.
3. Mary is the Vanquisher of Heresies
Mary is often called the destroyer or vanquisher of heresies. This is one way Irenaeus employs the Blessed Mother in his writings. In the early Church, some heresies rejected the Old Testament. In using Eve-Mary, Irenaeus demonstrates the continuity of the Old Testament with the New Testament, thereby refuting the Gnostic heresy. The two examples already cited contextualize the work of Irenaeus. It was from these contexts in which his Mariological contributions developed. His understanding of Mary within salvation history, through the Incarnation, directly refutes the heresies prevalent at his time.
4. Irenaeus Lays the Groundwork for Marian Co-Redemption
Mariology in the 20th and 21st century has seen a great divide over Mary’s role in redemption. At its height in the early 1900’s, Cardinal Mercier sought a fifth Marian dogma calling Mary the Co-Redemptirx and Mediatrix of All Grace. The movement stalled in wake of Vatican II when the Council chose to incorporate the role of Mary within Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium, but has seen momentum with figures such as Dr. Mark Miravalle and Monsignor Calkins.
Marian Co-Redemption is greatly misunderstood by many in the Church of today because the word “co” seems to connote equal to, whereas it means to cooperate. Irenaeus made this very clear in his writing by the use of two different Greek words—one used for the role of Christ as savior and redeemer, and a second for the role of Mary in the active, immediate, and subordinate work of redemption.
5. A Foundation for the Devotion Mary, Undoer of Knots
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has promoted a devotion to Mary called “Mary, Untier (or Undoer) or Knots.” The painting by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner depicts Mary untying a string of knots and was commissioned in thanksgiving for Mary’s assistance in a troubled marriage. Besides the troubled marriage, Irenaeus can help us understand a deeper meaning for the devotion.
St. Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses the following: “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Mary’s obedience and faith undoes the knots of Eve’s disobedience and unbelief. In Mary we see the perfection of virtue because she is the sinless one. Her example of the virtues can help undo the many vices of our life, and not only that she can will assist us with her prayers.