Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, Martyr

[Saint Irenaeus of Lyons]Article

A.D. 202.

This saint is himself our voucher that he was born near the times of Domitian, consequently not in the close, as Dupin conjectures, but in the beginning of Adrian’s reign, about the year 120. He was a Grecian, probably a native of Lesser Asia. His parents who were Christians, placed him under the care of the great Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. It was in so holy a school, that he learned that sacred science which rendered him afterwards a great ornament of the Church in the days of her splendour, and the terror of her enemies. Saint Polycarp cultivated his rising genius, and formed his mind to piety by precepts and example; and the zealous scholar was careful to reap all the advantages which were offered him by the happiness of such a master. Such was his veneration for his sanctity, that he observed every action and whatever he saw in that holy man, the better to copy his example, and learn his spirit. He listened to his instructions with an insatiable ardour, and so deeply did he engrave them in his heart, that the impressions remained most lively even to his old age, as he declares in his letter to Florinus, quoted by Eusebius. Saint Jerom informs us, that Saint Irenæus was also a scholar of Papias, another disciple of the apostles. In order to confute the heresies of that age which, in the three first centuries, were generally a confused medley drawn from the most extravagant systems of the heathens and their philosophers, joined with Christianity, this father studied diligently the mythology of the Pagans, and made himself acquainted with the most absurd conceits of their philosophers, by which means he was qualified to trace up every error to its source, and set it in its full light. On this account he is styled by Tertullian, “The most diligent searcher of all doctrines.” Saint Jerom often appeals to his authority. Eusebius commends his exactness. Saint Epiphanius calls him “A most learned and eloquent man, endowed with all the gifts of the Holy Ghost.” Theodoret styles him, “The light of the western Gauls.”

The great commerce between Marseilles and the ports of Lesser Asia, especially Smyrna, made the intercourse between those places very open. The faith of Christ was propagated in that part of Gaul in the times of the apostles; and from thence soon reached Vienne and Lyons, this latter town being then by the advantage of the Rhone no less famous a mart than it is at this day. While the desire of wealth encouraged many to hazard their persons, amidst the dangers of the seas and robbers, in the way of trade, a zeal for the divine honour and the salvation of souls was a more noble and more powerful motive with others to face every danger and surmount every difficulty for so glorious an achievement. Among the Greeks and Orientals, whom we find crowned with martyrdom with others at Lyons and Vienne, several doubtless had travelled into those parts with a view only to carry thither the light of the gospel. Saint Gregory of Tours informs us, that Saint Polycarp himself sent Saint Irenæus into Gaul, perhaps in company with some priest. He was himself ordained priest of the church of Lyons by Saint Pothinus; and in 177, he was sent deputy, in the name of that church, to Pope Eleutherius to entreat him not to cut off from the communion of the Church the Orientals, on account of their difference about the celebration of Easter, as Eusebius and Saint Jerom take notice. The multitude and zeal of the faithful at Lyons stirred up the rage of the heathens, and gave occasion to a tumultuary and most bloody persecution, of which an account has been given June 2d. Saint Irenæus gave great proofs of his zeal in those times of trial; but survived the storm, during the first part of which he had been absent in his journey to Rome. Saint Pothinus having glorified God by his happy death in the year 177, our saint upon his return was chosen the second bishop of Lyons, in the heat of the persecution. By his preaching, he in a short time converted almost that whole country to the faith, as Saint Gregory of Tours testifies. Eusebius tells us that he governed the churches of Gaul; but the faith was not generally planted in the more remote provinces from Marseilles and Lyons before the arrival of Saint Dionysius and his companions in the following century.

Commodus succeeding his father Marcus Aurelius in the empire in 180, though an effeminate debauched prince, restored peace to the Church. But it was disturbed by an execrable spawn of heresies, particularly of the Gnostics and Valentinians. Saint Irenæus wrote chiefly against these last, his five books against heresies. The original Greek text of this work was most elegant, as Saint Jerome testifies. But, except some few Greek passages which have been preserved, only a Latin translation is extant, in which the style is embarrassed, diffusive, and unpolished. It seems to have been made in the life-time of Saint Irenæus, and to be the same that was made use of by Tertullian, as Dom Massuet shows. This Valentinus was a good scholar, and preached with applause, first in Egypt, and afterwards at Rome. We learn from Tertullian, that he fell by pride and jealousy, because another was preferred before him in an election to a bishopric in Egypt. He first broached his heresy in Cyprus, but afterwards propagated it in Italy and Gaul. When Florinus who had been his fellow-disciple under Saint Polycarp, and was afterwards a priest of the Church of Rome, blasphemously affirmed that God is the author of sin, and was on that account deposed from the priesthood, Saint Irenæus wrote him a letter entitled, “On the Monarchy or Unity of God, and that God is not the author of sin,” which is now lost. Eusebius quotes from it a passage in which the holy father in the most tender manner reminds him with what horror their common master Saint Polycarp, had he been living, would have heard such impieties. Florinus was by this letter reclaimed from his error, but being of a turbulent proud spirit, he soon after fell into the Valentinian heresy. On which occasion Saint Irenæus wrote his Ogdoade, or Confutation of Valentinus’s eight principal Æônes, by whom that heresiarch pretended that the world was created and governed. In the end of this book, the saint added the following adjuration, preserved by Eusebius: “I conjure you who transcribe this book, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by his glorious coming to judge the living and the dead, that you diligently compare your copy, and correct it by the original. By this precaution, we may judge of the extreme care of the fathers in this respect, and how great their abhorrence was of the impudent practice of some heretics in adulterating writings. One Blastus, a priest at Rome, formed a schism, by keeping Easter on the 14th day of the first moon, and to this schism added heresy, teaching this to be a divine precept. He was deposed from the priesthood, and Saint Irenæus wrote against him his treatise on schism. The dispute about Easter being renewed, Pope Victor threatened to excommunicate the Asiatics; but was prevailed upon to tolerate for some time that practice of discipline by a letter of Saint Irenæus, who entreated and advised that, considering the circumstances, a difference of practice might be allowed, in like manner, as the faithful did not all observe in the same manner the fast of Superposition, or of one or more days without taking any sustenance in holy week, but some kept it of one, others of two, others of more days. Thus the pope’s severity prevented these false teachers who pretended the legal ceremonies to be of precept, from drawing any advantage from this practice of the Orientals; and the moderation of Saint Irenæus preserved some from a temptation of sinning by obstinacy and disobedience, till a uniformity in that important point of discipline could be more easily established.

The peace which the Church at that time enjoyed, afforded our saint leisure to exert his zeal, and employ his pen to great advantage. Commodus began his reign with extraordinary moderation; and though he afterwards sunk into debauchery and cruelty, yet he never persecuted the Christians. He was poisoned and strangled in 192, being thirty-one years old, of which he had reigned twelve. Pertinax, an old man, was made emperor by compulsion, but reigned only eighty-seven days, always trembling for his own safety. Being esteemed too frugal and rigorous, he was slain; and the prætorian guards, who had often made and unmade emperors at pleasure, whom the never-gainsaying senate confirmed, on that occasion debased to the last degree the dignity of the Roman empire by exposing it to sale by public auction. Didius Julianus and Sulpicianus having several times outbid each other, when the latter had offered five thousand drachms, Julianus at once rose to six thousand two hundred and fifty drachms, which he promised to give every soldier; for which price he carried the empire. The senate confirmed the election, but the purchaser being embarrassed to find money to acquit himself of his engagement, was murdered sixty-six days after; having dearly bought the honour of wearing the purple, and of having his name placed among the emperors. Severus was next advanced to the throne by a part of the troops, and acknowledged emperor by the senate. Niger and Albinus were proclaimed by different armies; but Severus defeated the first by his generals in 194, and the latter himself near Lyons in Gaul, in 197. The Christians had no share in these public broils. Tertullian at that time much extols the fidelity of the Christians to their princes, and says, none of them were ever found in armies of rebels, and particularly, that none of them were ever engaged in the party, either of Niger or of Albinus. It is evident from the whole series of the history of the Roman emperors, that the people, from the days of Augustus, never looked upon that dignity as strictly hereditary. The confirmation of the senate in the name of the whole Roman people, seems to have been regarded as the solemn act of the state, by which the emperor was legally invested with that supreme dignity; on this account the Christians every where acknowledged and faithfully obeyed Severus. He had also other obligations to them. Tertullian tells us, that a Christian, called Proculus, cured him of a certain distemper, for which benefit the emperor was for some time favourable to the Christians, and kept Proculus as long as he lived in his palace. This Proculus was the steward of Euhodus, who was a freed man of the emperor Severus, and by him appointed to educate his son Caracalla. Tertullian mentions this cure as miraculous, and joins it to the history of devils cast out. This cure is confirmed by pagan writers. Yet the clamours of the heathens at length moved this ungrateful emperor, who was naturally inclined to severity, to raise the fifth persecution against the Church; for he was haughty, cruel, stubborn, and unrelenting. He published his bloody edicts against the Christians about the tenth year of his reign, of Christ 202. Having formerly been governor of Lyons, and eye-witness to the nourishing state of that church, he seems to have given particular instructions that the Christians there should be proceeded against with extraordinary severity; unless this persecution was owing to the fury of the particular magistrates and of the mob. For the general massacre of the Christians at Lyons seems to have been attended with a popular commotion of the whole country against them, whilst the pagans were celebrating the decennial games in honour of Severus. It seems to have been stirred up, because the Christians refused to join the idolaters in their sacrifices. Whence Tertullian says in his Apology: “Is it thus that your public rejoicings are consecrated by public infamy?” Ado, in his chronicle, says, Saint Irenæus suffered martyrdom with an exceeding great multitude. An ancient epitaph, in leonine verses, inscribed on a curious mosaic pavement in the great church of Saint Irenæus at Lyons, says, the martyrs who died with him amounted to the number of nineteen thousand. Saint Gregory of Tours writes, that Saint Irenæus had in a short time converted to the faith almost the whole city of Lyons; and that with him were butchered almost all the Christians of that populous town; insomuch, that the streets ran with streams of blood. Most place the martyrdom of these saints in 202, the beginning of the persecution, though some defer it to the year 208, when Severus passed through Lyons in his expedition into Britain. The precious remains of Saint Irenæus were buried by his priest Zachary, between the bodies of the holy martyrs SS. Epipodius and Alexander. They were kept with honour in the subterraneous chapel in the church of Saint John, till in 1562, they were scattered by the Calvinists, and a great part thrown into the river. The head they kicked about in the streets, then cast it into a little brook; but it was found by a Catholic and restored to Saint John’s church. The Greeks honour his memory on the 23rd of August; the Latins on the 28th of June. The former say he was beheaded.

It was not for want of strength or courage, that the primitive Christians sat still and suffered the most grievous torments, insults, and death; but from a principle of religion which taught them the interest of faith does not exempt men from the duty which they owe to the civil authority of government, and they rather chose to be killed than to sin against God, as Tertullian often takes notice. Writing at this very time, he tells the Pagans, that the Maurs, Marcomans, and Parthians, were not so numerous as the Christians, who knew no other bounds than the limits of the world. “We are but of yesterday,” says he, “and by to-day we are grown up, and overspread your empire; your cities, your islands, your forts, towns, assemblies, and your very camps, wards, companies, palace, senate, forum, all swarm with Christians. Your temples are the only places which you can find without Christians. What war are not we equal to? And supposing us unequal in strength, yet considering our usage, what should we not attempt? we whom you see so ready to meet death in all its forms of cruelty. Were the numerous hosts of Christians but to retire from the empire, the loss of so many men of all ranks would leave a hideous gap, and the very evacuation would be abundant revenge. You would stand aghast at your desolation, and be struck dumb at the general silence and horror of nature, as if the whole world was departed.” He writes that the Christians not only suffered with patience and joy every persecution and insult, but loved and prayed for their enemies, and by their prayers protected the state, and often delivered the persecutors from many dangers of soul and body, and from the incursions of their invisible enemies the devils. He says: “When we come to the public service of God, we come as it were in a formidable body to do violence to him, and to storm heaven by prayer; and this violence is most grateful to God. When this holy army of supplicants is met, we all send up our prayers for the life of the emperors, for their ministers, for magistrates, for the good of the state, and for the peace of the empire.” And in another place: “To this Almighty Maker and Disposer of all things it is, that we Christians offer up our prayers, with eyes lifted up to heaven; and without a prompter, we pray with our hearts rather than with our tongues; and in all our prayers are ever mindful of all our emperors and kings wheresoever we live, beseeching God for every one of them, that he would bless them with length of days, and a quiet reign, a well established family, a valiant army, a faithful senate, an honest people, and a peaceful world, with whatever else either prince or people can wish for. Thus while we are stretching forth our hands to God, let your tormenting irons harrow our flesh, let your gibbets exalt us, or your fires consume our bodies, or let your swords cut off our heads, or your beasts tread us to the earth. For a Christian, upon his knees to his God, is in a posture of defense against all the evils you can crowd upon him. Consider this, O you impartial judges, and go on with your justice; rack out the soul of a Christian, which is pouring out herself to God for the life of the emperor.” He says, indeed, that there are some Christians, who do not live up to their profession; but then they have not the reputation of Christians among those who are truly such; and no Christian had then ever been guilty of rebellion; though even philosophers among the heathens were often stained with that and other crimes. Hippias was killed whilst he was engaged in arms against his country; whereas no Christian had ever recourse to arms or violence, even for the deliverance of his brethren, though under the most provoking and barbarous usage.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 26 June 2013. Web. 20 November 2017. <>