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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
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
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
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.
March 27, 2007
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The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings
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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