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Getting to Know the Greek Fathers | Alcuin Reid | The Foreword to Adrian Fortescue's The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings

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As ever when approaching one of Adrian Fortescue's works, prepare yourself for a treat. For in these pages we will travel extensively throughout the ancient Christian East, from Alexandria to Caesarea, from Constantinople to Jerusalem, to Alexandria again and thence to Damascus, "the real eternal city" in Fortescue's estimation.

We will be introduced as if in person to the great Greek Fathers of the fourth, fifth and eighth centuries of the Church's history: to the great Father of the Christological debates, Saint Athanasius; to Saint Basil, "one of the greatest of that younger generation of Catholic bishops who carried on the fight that Athanasius had fought and finally stamped out the Arian heresy". We will meet Saint Basil's dear friend, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, "the patron saint of people who do not want to be bishops", and Saint John Chrysostom, the "great model and patron of preachers". There are also two Saints Cyril to encounter: the first, of Jerusalem, who spent sixteen of the thirty-five years of his episcopate in banishment, and the second, of Alexandria, the champion of the Mother of God against the Nestorian heresy. Finally we will meet the eighth-century Saint John of Damascus, the first of the Christian Aristotelians who lived his entire life under Muslim rule.

Through Fortescue's introductions we will learn Catholic theology by reliving the gritty events in which it was originally hammered out. We will see its champions suffer and at times take questionable paths. Yet we will also witness their fortitude and perseverance and glimpse in their struggles a tangible sanctity from which any age--not least our own--can learn very much indeed.

For Adrian Fortescue (1874-1923), a true polyglot, while an utterly English Roman-rite priest, possessed the heart of an Eastern Catholic. He travelled extensively in the East and wrote prolifically about their churches, doing much to raise the awareness of many Westerners in respect of the life and traditions of our Eastern brethren. So Eastern were Fortescue's sensibilities that in 1908 he seriously considered giving his priestly services to Cyril VIII, the Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Damascus (1902-1916), with whom he had stayed for the greater part of December 1906. The Patriarch was prepared to go personally to Pope Saint Pius X in order to gain Fortescue's release from England to work in Damascus.

In fact, it was with this prospect uppermost in his mind that Fortescue wrote The Greek Fathers. For in the same letter (February 16, 1908) in which he confided his Damascene aspirations to a close friend, he reported:
Now I am tearing through John Chrysostom (nice person) and making purple patches about the great and God-beloved city of Antioch. He ought to be done on Wednesday; then Gregory of Nazianzum (I can't stand him), two Cyrus & John Damascene (meek person who loved Damascus--like me in many ways). They ought to all be done in a fortnight.
But Fortescue remained in England. Later that year he wrote (November 30, 1908) that Cyril VIII was angry with him because "I am shut up in a distant grey island under cloudy skies; but my soul is back in the land of Syria sleeping under the apricot trees, where the waters of Barada splash in the fountains under the hot sky and the camels growl by the shady vaults of the gates." Under those grey skies he continued faithfully to pastor his small new parish of Saint Hugh, Letchworth, to write his "purple patches" on the Christian East and to love the Church Catholic, East and West.

Fortescue's love for the East, combined with his refined intelligence and wide experience of the East, is why he is such a reliable guide. And it is one reason why, a century later, one ought to read this book. Certainly, much has been written about these Fathers in the intervening years, but his passion for the people, events and churches that this work encompasses retains its value.

Fear not his style. As the above excerpt from his correspondence illustrates, he frequently says what he thinks. And his ecclesiology is stark, as stark as that of the subjects of these biographies, indeed, perhaps too much so for some contemporary ears. Yet his straight-speaking comes from his conviction that a man must speak the truth, and if his writing thus helps us to examine our own tendency to obfuscate it, perhaps he has done us good service thereby.

Not unnaturally Adrian Fortescue's considerable gifts led him to dream of becoming the bishop's secretary, of eventually himself donning the bishop's purple and even a cardinal's hat. That was not to be. As well as contemplating becoming a priest of an Eastern Catholic Church, in 1909 he sought admission to the Benedictine Abbey of Melk in Austria. This, too, never came to pass. In God's Providence his lot remained that of the founding rector of a small rural parish. He considered himself "not really very good" at parish work, yet he boasted to friends that his little church was "the only church worth looking at west of Constantinople". After his early death from cancer in 1923 it became apparent just how fine a pastor he in fact had been, and indeed how fine a church he had built.

Indeed, Fortescue "scribbled" day and night in order to make ends meet. Nothing but the best would suffice for the parish of Saint Hugh. His writings were an exercise of his scholarship, yes, but they were above all an oblation ordered to the greater glory of Almighty God. They were also ordered to the edification of the Church. For as retiring and sensitive as Fortescue was by nature, he could not allow an opportunity to. pass wherein he was able to introduce others to aspects of Catholic tradition of which they were unaware--he was a natural and gifted teacher. Hence this volume's thoroughly enjoyable, profound introduction to our Greek Fathers.

When we have travelled the East with Fortescue these Fathers will no longer be mere figures of early Church history. Yes, we shall have enjoyed Fortescue's style and yes, we shall have grown in wisdom and knowledge from his erudition. But we shall also have gained some new friends, the great Fathers of the early Eastern Church, to whom in this life, as we strive faithfully to live and hand on the faith that was theirs, we can turn in the communion of saints for the benefit of their example and the assistance of their intercession, especially on their liturgical feasts, and with whom we hope to enjoy the next. Please God our guide, also, is in a position to assist us today not only through his writing of a century ago, but also with his prayers.

Alcuin Reid
March 27, 2007

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The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings

Adrian Fortescue

The Fathers of the Church were great, holy men of history who lived in the early centuries of Christianity and made a significant impact on the Church and society by their lives and their teachings & writings. There are various groups of such men considered to be Fathers of the Church, and this work focuses on the lives, adventures and central teachings of the great Greek Fathers, whose names are well-known in the history of the Church.

The author covers seven Greek Fathers who lived between the years 293 to 754, most of them living in the 200-400's. These are St. Athanasius (293-373), St. Basil (330-379), St. Gregory Nazianzos (330-390), St. John Chrysostom (344-407), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386), St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444) and St. John of Damascus (+754).

This work gives popular sketches of these great saints, focusing more on their lives than on their theology, and is meant for the inspiration and illumination of the layman. These men are important, great figures of history to know about, men who were mighty patriarchs or famous bishops, who lead councils, resisted Caesar and suffered persecution for Christ. Their lives and dramatic witness stand out as a bright beacon of light for us all.

Adrian Fortescue was a priest, author and highly respected scholar from England who lived in the early twentieth century. He wrote several books on Church history and on the liturgy.

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