Doctors of the Church

This page contains a list of the great men and women of the Church who have been styled Doctors by the authority in Rome, in virtue of their proficiency in the science of God, of the Church and of the Christian life. They are canonised Saints of the Church, and so worthy of emulation by the Faithful, but they are more, too. For they have been judged to be able to teach us also and are sure guides to us in the spiritual life, as we proceed along our pilgrimage road towards our home in Heaven. For much of this, I’m indebted to the Holy Father Benedict’s summary in the collection of his instructive homilies called Doctors of the Church.

1. Athanasius of Alexandria (feast day 2nd of May). This Saint had a difficult political life, within the Church and within the Byzantine Empire, as well. Born at the turn of the fourth century, he died in AD 373, and he spent much of that time in exile, because of his adherence to the Catholic Faith. He is seen as a pillar of strength in both the Western Church and the Eastern, and is one of the four original Doctors of both the Eastern and Western Church (the others being Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine of Hippo for the West, and John Chrysostom for the East). Athanasius’ great contribution to theology is his strong and enduring defence of the Catholic doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ as the eternal Word of God, who was made incarnate and dwelt among men; and his consequent victory over the heresy of Arianism which, to simplify immensely, called Christ a creature distinct from God the Father and subordinate to Him. Athanasius joined battle with the Arians as a deacon when, as a deacon, he accompanied his bishop to the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in AD 325, which declared that Christ is consubstantial with the Father, and so fully divine Himself. The novel system of Arius (he also a priest of Alexandria), however, persisted afterwards, and when Athanasius was made bishop of Alexandria, it was clear that Arianism would not be tolerated there. The heresy continued to grow and was even upheld by the Emperors, who weren’t so much concerned with right theology as they were with keeping the peace and maintaining unity in the Church. Five times did Athanasius find himself exiled from his diocese in Alexandria, finding himself as far away as Gaul on one occasion; in these circumstances, he was able to uphold the Catholic position in the regions of his exile. He even planted the seeds in Italy of monasticism, from which Saint Benedict would later be able to bring much growth.

Athanasius’ great work was his treatise de Incarnatione, in which may be found the Catholic description of the Incarnation of Christ. Thus do we realise the plan of God to close up the abyss between Himself and humanity, so that He might become accessible to us – it is through being both God and human that Christ became this Bridge between us. Several of Athanasius’ letters to a friend of his, Serapion, the bishop of Thmuis, are also extant, in which he speaks of the divinity of the Holy Ghost; several other letters to the Church in Egypt; and meditations on the Book of Psalms. And we have the Life of Anthony, a biography of Saint Anthony abbot, a close friend of Athanasius’ and monk in the Egyptian desert.

Athanasius of Alexandria (d. AD 373)

2. Ephrem the Deacon (feast day 9th of June). a contemporary of Athanasius, Ephrem even died in the same year, in AD 373. He was born at Nisibis, in northern Syria (called Nusaybin by the Turks), and was both a theologian and a poet. With James, the bishop of Nisibis, he founded the theological school there and was active as a deacon there until the city fell into Persian hands in AD 363, when he moved to Edessa, where he died while assisting plague-stricken citizens. He has left behind prose work, poetic prose, versified homilies and hymns. As a poet, he reflected according to Holy Scripture on the mystery of the Word Incarnate and the mystery of redemption wrought by by Him. His poetry and hymnology are instructive and have proved to be a powerful catechetical tool. Ephrem remained a deacon, and that says very much for his spirit of service.

Ephraim the Deacon (d. AD 373)

3. Hilary of Poitiers (feast day 13th of January). the first of the Doctors in the list from the Western Church, Hilary was also contemporary with Athanasius and Ephrem and gave battle also to Arianism, which described Christ as the best of all creatures, instead of as consubstantial with the Father, through Whom all things were made. In AD 356, as bishop of Poitiers, he suffered exile from Gaul, on account of his opposition to the spread of Arianism; where he went to, Phrygia, he found the same Arianism and he wrote his definitive de Trinitate to defend the Catholic faith, and to demonstrate the divine Christ, the Word of God, as being present throughout Holy Scripture, in the Old Testament as well at the New. It was on account of him that the bishops of Gaul generally proved strong opponents to the Arian bishops elsewhere. He also wrote the oldest Latin commentary on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, and also made up Treatises on the Psalms. He died in AD 367.

Hilarius of Poitiers

4. Cyril of Jerusalem (feast day 18th of March). Cyril was also a fourth-century bishop and so was embroiled in the christological controversies that surrounded the Arian heresy, which called Christ a creature, if the highest of creatures, rather than the God-man, consubstantial with the Father. Cyril was born in Judaea in AD 315 and by mid-century was the bishop of Jerusalem. For his allegiance to the Catholic faith, he was thrice exiled by Arian bishops and by the Arian emperor Valens. Cyril played an important part in the AD 381 Council of Constantinople, which finalised the creed we regularly recite at Mass on Sundays and solemnities. History has left us several of his catecheses, some delivered to candidates for baptism, others to the newly baptised: the mystagogical catecheses, teaching prayer and sacraments to new Christians. Here are some online. The catechetical progression from the doctrinal to the mystagogical is still the soul of the present-day formation of Catholics.

Cyril of Jerusalem

5. Basil of Caesarea (feast day 2nd of January). Born in about AD 330, he is also called Basil the Great, a later bishop of the fourth-century, a powerful intellect (schooled in Athens and Constantinople) and known for the holiness of his life. He built the monastic life in the East, before being ordained and then appointed bishop of Caesarea Mazaca (called Kayseri by the Turks), managing to combine this busy life with a life of prayer and meditation. One of his gifts to us is detailed guidance on achieving perfection within communities of the consecrated life; this provided inspiration for the Saint Benedict in the West, and was directed toward not seclusion but active engagement in the local church, through works of charity. As bishop, he defended the freedom of the Church and coordinated charitable works, originating the hospital systems of later times with his cities of mercy, called Basiliade, after him. He was also a liturgical reformer and gave the Easter Church the anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) that bears his name; the holy Eucharist was for him the nourishment necessary for the Christian life, and he recommended frequent Holy Communion, even daily. And he gave battle to the Arians heretics, alongside other Catholic heroes, becoming a doctor of the Holy Trinity, defining the Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity that is part of the Catholic creed. We have in this respect his homilies, controversies and catechetical works on Holy Scripture and the Sacraments. He wrote a whole book on the Holy Spirit, and he defended human dignity based on the Incarnation of Christ. And he taught Charity, several of his homilies on this subject being still available, becoming an early source for the Church’s social doctrine. He encouraged young people to learn from the classical works of Greek and Latin culture all that was conformable to the truth of the Faith, providing strong support for a liberal arts programme of education. To the youth he also recommended the school of virtues, as a source of imperishable good.

Basil of Caesarea

6. Gregory the Theologian (feast day 2nd of January). a friend of Saint Basil above, Gregory of Nazianzus was also a native of Cappadocia, a theologian and speaker, and a poet. He was also born around AD 330, and attended the great academies of his time, at Caesarea Mazaca (where he met and befriended Basil), Alexandria and Athens (Basil was there, too). Gregory came to say that the two had one soul in two bodies. Gregory was an orator who loved silence and solitude, a philosopher who appreciated meditation. Naturally he entered Orders with great reluctance although, even as a priest, he did his best to avoid being appointed a bishop. He was called to Constantinople in AD 379 to head the small Catholic Church that was beset by the Arian heresy; at that point he delivered a series of Theological Orations that established his status as the Theologian, a title he still holds in the Eastern Orthodox churches today. He was able to persuasively link the study of theology to a life of prayer and holiness. At the second council of Constantinople in AD 381, he was elected bishop of Constantinople and president of the council. With deep sorrow, he discovered that the Arian heresy had fractured Christian unity and felt unable to be so involved in the disputes; he resigned from his oversight of the Church in Constantinople and returned to a quieter ministry at Nazianzus, and then into solitude at Arianzo. Here he wrote much poetry and an autobiography and in AD 390 returned to God. Let’s make a short list of his legacy: a large bulk of homiletic material, public discourses, many letters and much poetry. As a Catholic bishop, he defended the Council of Nicaea and the Catholic doctrine of three persons in one God, equal and distinct from each other. Against Apollinaris, he defended human dignity and insisted that Christ had taken up all aspects of human existence; therefore, he defended the Blessed Virgin as the Theotokos (God-bearer), a model to Christians and a refuge in times of need. He also taught charity as the imitation of God’s goodness and love, and prayer as communion with God.

Gregory Nazianzenus (aka. Gregory of Nazianzus)

7. Ambrose of Milan (feast day 7th of December). the fourth-century bishop who, surprising for his time, used to read quietly and pray without uttering a sound. Ambrose had been educated for a career in the civil service, acquiring a strong foundation in rhetoric and jurisprudence, and it was in this wise that he found himself in the midst of the Arian crisis in the north of what we would today call Italy. In his attempts to calm down the opponents in the theological battle, Ambrose as a mere catechumen (yet unbaptised) produced such an impression upon the Catholics that he was immediately acclaimed bishop of Milan. He at once set about studying Scripture, taking as his master the Eastern theologian and exegete, Origen, and bringing the practice of lectio divina to the West. Thereafter, he formed his catecheses and instructions on morality on the basis of the prayerful reading of Scripture. Ambrose is known as the inspiration behind the conversion of that other great Doctor, Saint Augustine who, not yet a Christian, was surprised by the affection the Catholics of Milan had for their bishop. Augustine notes in his Confessions that the holy bishop was seen always assisting the people, who waited in long queues to consult him, spending the rest of his time reading.

Ambrose of Milan

8. John Chrysostom (feast day 13th of September). John of Antioch takes us out of the fourth century and just into the fifth. His powerful preaching voice made him the golden-mouthed (chryso-stomos), a reputation that persists today, for the divine Office of prayer (the Liturgy of the Hours) is littered with his contributions. John was born in Antioch-of-Syria, on the river Orontes, just before AD 350, and was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in AD 397. He had received a classical education in his youth and became one of the greatest orators of his time. After his scriptural and spiritual formation in Antioch, he spent four years with hermits on Mount Silpius, meditating on the New Testament, which made him the extraordinary preacher of later years. He was priested in AD 386 and joined the struggled against Arianism. Aside from hundreds of his homilies and his catecheses, John leaves us seventeen treatises, commentaries on New Testament books and hundreds of letters. A model of charity, John realised that human society must go beyond the occasional alms-giving to being completely overhauled and restructured according to Gospel principles; such ideas got him into trouble. John’s life as patriarch was brutally difficult, because of the politics that raged between Church and State and within the Church itself, between rival patriarchates, and between John himself and the empress Eudoxia. Twice he was exiled and, despite his appeal to the Holy Father in Rome (Innocent I), he died in exile in Ponto.

John Chrysostom

9. Jerome (feast day 30th of September). Saint Jerome is often depicted in imagery as a cardinal of the Roman Church because of his close relationship with the Holy Father Damasus. Jerome had an extraordinary devotion to Holy Scripture, spending a great deal of time gaining expertise in Hebrew (as well as Greek), and then translating into Latin (the Vulgate) for the Pope, who had begun to see that knowledge of Greek was declining in the West, even among the educated. Jerome was born in Dalmatia in the mid-fourth-century into a Christian family, and chose the eremitical life after baptism, often retreating to a life of solitude in the Holy Land, and devoting his time there to the study of Scripture. In AD 382, he arrived in Rome and became a secretary to the Holy Father Damasus. Aside from his work in producing the Vulgate Bible, he became a spiritual director and teacher of Scripture to many holy women, who also took up the study of the ancient languages. Jerome left Rome when Damasus died, and found his way to Bethlehem, where he died in about AD 420, having left behind a vast body of work on Scripture and a teaching legacy, both classical and Christian. Jerome thought that Scripture was a very personal means of communing with God, as well as a unifying force in the Christian communion. Devotion to Scripture study is therefore meant for us all, and brings with it a particular joy and the gift of Eternity. Thus prayer is meant to alternate with reading Scripture, in an ongoing conversation with God our Love. His love of asceticism and meditative prayer is just as strong as his love of Scripture. Then there was his love for the Holy Land, his place of retirement. He also had much advice about hard work and labour as a means of strengthening the soul against sin and building the Christian life, even in the rearing of children. In this, and in his general attitude to life and culture, Jerome seems to have been far ahead of his times.


10. Augustine of Hippo (feast day 28th of August). Saint Augustine (b. AD 354) is the greatest of the Latin Fathers, so voluminous in his writing, so much of which has survived (the greatest body of all the work of the early Fathers) and still furnishes us regularly today in the divine Office of prayer. He came from the province of Africa (near Carthage), extremely energetic and a high intellectual, this bishop still spent most of his time with the simplest of the Christians in his care. He is seen today as a great philosopher in the Western tradition, so is often referred to in a non-religious context. He may also have begun the tradition of autobiography, as we understand it today, with his famous Confessions, which includes a detailed narrative of his conversion from Manichaeism (more an eastern religion than any relative of Christianity, but whose members presented themselves with Christian accents) to Catholicism, through the influence of the great bishop Saint Ambrose of Milan and the tireless prayers of his mother, Saint Monica. Disenchanted with the Manichaeans, Augustine moved to Rome and then to Milan, plying his trade as a superlative teacher of the science of rhetoric. In Milan, his life changed when he attempted to learn rhetoric from the bishop Saint Ambrose, but ended up embracing the religion of his mother. She was able to witness his baptism in AD 387, before dying on the trip back to Africa. He tried to begin a monastic life at Hippo and was ordained in AD 391, setting up the rule that even today is followed by the communities of Augustinian canons, but he was quickly called to be bishop of Hippo in AD 395. He became one of the greatest forces in the Church at the time, opposing vigorously the heresies linked to Manichaeism, Donatism and then Pelagianism. He died in great distress in AD 430, even as Hippo was being besieged by the Germanic Vandals, who had invaded Roman Africa through Spain; he did not live to see the final capture of the city or the devastation of the province. Augustine left behind very much for our intellectual and spiritual development.

Aside from his autobiographical Confessions (famous and a bestseller for centuries), there are hundreds of letters, hundreds of homilies, and these are only what is extant; much more has been lost. Philosophy, apologetics, catechetics, doctrine, morality, the monastic life and scriptural exegesis are also included in the corpus. There is also the City of God, a large, twenty-two-book work treating the Christian view of politics and religion, that followed the sack of Rome by the Goths in AD 410, a grave shock for Roman citizens, who had not experienced this shame for over 800 years. His fifteen-book work on the Holy Trinity needs mention also, and his apologetic work on Christian doctrine, both of which have, together with the City of God, formed Western culture. He left nothing in death but the library of his works, with which Holy Church is indeed enriched.

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)

11. Cyril of Alexandria (feast day 27th of June). Called the Seal of the Fathers, Cyril was the last of the great Alexandrian Fathers and anxious to stand in the Catholic theological tradition, especially as represented by his predecessor, the famous Athanasius of Alexandria. Cyril was probably born in Alexandria at the end of the fourth century, and following the death of his uncle who was then bishop of Alexandria, Cyril himself took up this office in AD 412, pushing for the primacy of the Egyptian church in the East, particularly because of her links to the Roman church (Rome under the Apostle Saint Peter had erected Alexandria through Peter’s disciple Saint Mark). Cyril prepared for war in AD 428 when the Antiochian monk and priest Nestorius was elected Bishop and Patriarch of Constantinoplein AD 428; Alexandria and Constantinople were already at political odds, because of the primacy of Alexandria and Constantinople’s being the residence of the Emperor and his court. But the theological schools of Alexandria and Antioch were also major rivals. Nestorius became the centre of the battle when he decided to call the Blessed Virgin the Mother of Christ, rather than the Mother of God, demonstrating a division between Christ’s humanity and His divinity (an Antiochian tradition) which Cyril and the Alexandrians could not tolerate, dedicated as they were to the unity of Christ’s Person. Cyril furiously sent letters to Nestorius to correct him, then acquired the condemnation of Nestorius by the Holy Father in Rome, and again at a Council at Ephesos in AD 431, which we recognise as the third ecumenical council (after Nicaea AD 325 and Constantinople AD 381). Nestorius was exiled and the Blessed Virgin acquired the title Theotokos, the God-Bearer, by which she is still known today. Thereafter, Cyril attempted to reconcile the theological traditions of the Alexandrians and the Antiochians, dying in AD 444.

Cyril has left us commentaries on many of the books of Holy Scripture, including much of the Old Testament and the gospels of John and Luke. He also wrote doctrinal material against the heresies of Arianism and Nestorianism. He also composed a work against Julian the Apostate, the Emperor who tried to drag the Empire back from Christianity towards her traditional religion.

Cyril of Alexandria

12. Leo the Great of Rome (feast day 10th of November). The Holy Father Leo was a Tuscan, already a deacon at Rome in AD 430 and a diplomat in Gaul, when the Holy Father Sixtus III died in Rome in AD 440 and Leo succeeded him. He died in AD 461 and was buried at Rome Saint Peter’s basilica, where his relics are still venerated. Leo lived at a time when the power of Rome in the West was beginning to diminish and Germanic tribes were descending upon west and south Europe from the north-east and the papacy became a point of unity in the territories of the declining Empire. Leo himself was instrumental in preventing the Huns lead by Attila from invading and devastating the greater part of Italy in AD 452. He also attempted to protect Rome from the Vandals lead by Genseric in AD 455. Strong in his works of charity in a difficult time, Leo left a strong legacy in the Roman liturgy, which he demonstrated as not enlivening memories of the past, but as giving expression to events of grace in the present.

Leo has left us several sermons and letters, showing himself to be a masterful theologian, a kindly bishop and zealous for the primacy of the Roman church, seat of the Apostle Saint Peter. Leo guided over the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 which, together with Nicaea AD 325, Constantinople AD 381 and Ephesos AD 431, summarised the Faith of the Church after the great theological controversies of last two centuries. These four councils were later seen as comparable to the four Gospels. Chalcedon settled the matter of the Person of Christ, true God and true man, and was incorporated in the Holy Father’s Tome to Flavian, which was read at the Council and sent to the patriarch of Constantinople, and respected throughout the Church as an act of the primacy of the Successor of Saint Peter.

The Holy Father Leo and Attila

13. Peter Chrysologus (feast day 20th of July). Peter was a native of Imola and was born in AD 406, a spiritual adoptee of Cornelius, the bishop of that city. In AD 433, he was made bishop of the ancient city of Ravenna, then the captial of the Western Empire and a daughter See of Rome, by the Holy Father Sixtus III. He was called the chryso-logus (he of the golden word) because of his phenomenal skills as a preacher and orator. Peter was friend of the Holy Father Leo I (called the Great, above) and of the Empress Galla Placidia, who gave him that name, Chrysologus. The master of the short sermon was again not very original; few of the Fathers were. They simply handed down the traditions of the Church using their own genius. Peter was also well known for his zeal and his piety as bishop.

Peter has left us a collection of homilies, mostly interpretations of scripture, known for their brevity. He was a theologian supreme and specialised in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Apostles’ Creed, and dedications to the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Baptist. He also countered the heresies called Arianism and Monophysitism. His position helped the condemnation of the heretic Eutyches at the ecumenical council at Chalcedon in AD 451.

Peter Chrysologus

14. Gregory the Great of Rome (feast day 3rd of September). Gregory was the bishop of Rome at the turn of the seventh century, sixty-fourth in the line of the Apostle Saint Peter, and patriarch of the Latin church, a member of a leading Roman family called Anicia, well-known as Christians and Catholics. Two other popes were Anicians, including Gregory’s own great-great-grandfather, the Holy Father Felix III, in the fifth century. Both Gregory’s parents, Gordian and Sylvia, are Saints of the Church, and his devout aunts Aemiliana and Tharsilla, contributed to his sure foundation as a Catholic. After a brief career in the civil service in the Holy City, he transformed the family home into the monastery of Saint Andrew on the Coelian hill and retreated there, but was called out of seclusion because of his reputation as an administrator and diplomat. The Holy Father Pelagius ordained him deacon and sent him as legate to Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire, in order to deal with the monophysite heresy and to acquire assistance for Rome against the Germanic invaders called Lombards. Recalled to Rome, Gregory became secretary to the Holy Father. At a time of general turmoil, including terrible flooding and outbreak of disease, Pelagius died and Gregory was elected in AD 590 to the See of Saint Peter. He became a firm rock at a time when Europe was changing rapidly, as the old Empire continued to die and several Germanic tribes established a new order: Visigoths in Iberia, Franks in Gaul, Angles and Saxons in Britain, and the Lombards in north and central Italy. Gregory personally worked for peace in Italy, through dialogue with the Lombard king Agilulf and his Bavarian queen, Theodolinda, she a Catholic. Thus cultivating the Catholic faith among the Lombards, Gregory also established peace between them and the Byzantine power in Constantinople. Meanwhile, he established works of charity, helping the poor with food and ransoming the captives of the Lombards. And this he managed while himself in bad health, brought on apparently through his severely ascetic lifestyle. He died in AD 604, a father to his people, a foundation of peace and a source of hope in desperate times.

Saint Gregory leaves us much to profit from, including a registry of more than eight hundred letters (including to our Saint Augustine) and his homilies on Holy Scripture, we have his Dialogues, which were composed for Queen Theodolinda and demonstrated the importance of personal holiness, open to being acquired by all Christians, even in difficult times. There is also his Pastoral Rule, his original programme for the Church, written at the beginning of his pontificate, which calls the care of souls ‘the art of all arts.’ Like the other Fathers, Gregory was not very innovative in his thought but reproduced the traditional teaching of the Church. The Holy Father Benedict XVI calls this intellectual humility, which Gregory thought was primary to being able to understand theology, and that beginning from Holy Scripture. Only what is deeply understood by the Christian can then reach the ear of those he is preaching to, and Gregory thought all Christians should be preachers. Gregory emphasised the moral sense of Scripture – bringing action forth from the understanding of the written word. He left a strong record on ecumenical relations between the various churches, coining the term ‘servant of the servants of God,’ the touchstone of episcopal humility, which the popes still use as a title. And that’s a good place to end this essay.

The Holy Father Gregory the Great

15. Isidore of Seville (feast day 4th of April). A friend of the great pope Gregory above, Isidore too was caught up in the dramatic changes in the Europe of the time, as the Empire collapsed inwardly, and Germanic tribes overran the Latin territories in the south: Lombards in Italy, Visigoths in Iberia, Vandals in the African territories, Franks in Gaul and Angles and Saxons in Britain. Isidore’s brother Leander was the archbishop of Seville and guided the younger man in his spiritual formation and personal discipline. Isidore became a scholar of pagan culture and simultaneously of Christian culture. Isidore followed his brother to become archbishop of Seville in AD 599. Isidore was the typical saintly bishop, torn between his desire for a life of perfection and between the government of the Church that was part of his consecration. In his continued affection for classical culture, Isidore was a type of Christian humanist, unable to set aside the the history of his nation and of the world in general, and this guided his approach to the pagans, Christian heretics and the Jewish community. He also advocated a balance of the active and the contemplative life in an alternation between the two, a middle way that is more useful than a life dedicated entirely to either active work or to contemplation. Isidore died in AD 636, famous throughout Europe for an encyclopedic work, the Etymologiae, a great compilation of the classical sciences.

Isidore of Seville

16. The Venerable Bede of Northumbria (feast day 25th of May). Bede was an English scholar, born in about AD 672, entrusted in his minority to the monks of the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, to be educated. Although he never left Northumbria, he was able to accumulate much learning from books brought to him by travelling monks and abbots. He occupied his time away from monastic duty to learning (particular in Sacred Scripture), teaching and writing, becoming famous for it in his lifetime, especially for his great synthesis in Latin of the history of the Church in England from its origins in Roman Britain, through the turmoil of the fall of the Empire and the Germanic invasions, and until his own time, when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had attained a measure of peace; a work entitled the Ecclesiastical History of the English people. With respect to his reading of Scripture, Bede used Christ as a key even to the Hebrew Bible, so rather than talking about a separation between an old testament and a new testament, there is only one Sacred Scripture. In my reading through the Bible recently, I can absolutely accept this view. Bede, with his Major Chronicle, established the present universal calendar based on the advent of Christ as the centre of history, using what has been for centuries measured Before Christ (BC) and in the Year of the Lord (Anno Domini, AD). Before this, time in the Empire and its traditional territories had been measured from the date of the foundation of the City of Rome. Bede also left us a body of liturgical theology in his homilies, demonstrating an understanding of the Sacraments as regenerates Christ within us, as individuals and as the Church. Bede died in AD 737, already called ‘Venerable’ by none other by the Holy Father himself, then Sergius I.

The Venerable Bede

17. John of Damascus (feast day 4th of December). Saint John the Damascene, an Eastern Father of the Church, was also probably the last of the line of the ancient Fathers. John lived during the period of the Arab invasions that destroyed the Christian cultures of such places as Egypt and Libya, and also large parts of Syria and Palestine. John inherited the job of treasurer to the caliphate in Syria, but later abandoned it for the monastic life, entering the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem in about AD 700, spending the rest of his life there, a scholar and a priest. He was a great defender of religious iconography, at a time when the new Islamic ascendancy led even Christians down the road of iconoclasm. Although his defence was rejected and even condemned by some Catholics, it was redeemed and he vindicated at the second Council of Nicaea in AD 787, which was also the seventh ecumenical council. John distinguished true worship (latria) due only to God Almighty from the veneration given to images (proskinesis), paid to the representations of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the others Saints of the Church. Think of a photograph of a loved one and you get the idea of separating the material of the image (paper, in this case) from the person that image represents. Saint John even defended images of God Himself (in images of Christ), by asserting that in the Incarnation of Christ, God had made Himself visible. The Christian therefore venerates not the created material, but the God Who created it and deemed it worthy enough for He Himself to enter into Creation. If we cannot venerate sacred items, he thought, we must suppress the sacred nature of such items. When that means the Blessed Sacrament itself, we counter the wishes of God Himself. The Incarnation gives matter a dignity it may not have enjoyed before, creating a sacramental economy (visible signs of invisible grace) in the relationship between God and mankind. Similarly, Saint John defended the veneration of relics of the Saints, who have joined in the Resurrection of Christ. Pope Benedict speaks of the wonder at Creation in Saint John’s writing, John’s optimism in the contemplation of nature, praising the beauty, the true, all of which is to be renewed in the Incarnation of Christ, drawn from corruption on account of our sinfulness to eternal life.

John of Damascus

18. Peter Damian (feast day 21st of February). An eleventh century monk, Peter was dragged from his enclosure to become a great figure in the politics of his time, defending the Church and the Holy Father in Rome from the claims and the assault of the secular princes. He was born in Ravenna in AD 1007 to a noble family but quickly orphaned and adopted by his older brother and sister. He received his classical formation at Faenza and Parma and seems to have been trained in the law, as well as the liberal arts. He was known for his letters, sermons, and poetry. He saw the universe as a series of sensible symbols of the inner life and supernatural reality. He became a monk at Fonte Avellana in the 1030s and led a very austere life; he wrote the monks a life of Saint Romuald of Ravenna, their founder, and strove to establish the ideal of the hermit’s life. Peter developed a strong devotion to the Holy Cross. He was also a master of the life of prayer and is a well-regarded theologian, dealing excellently with dogma, Scripture and ecclesiology. Peter worked with the popes to reform the clergy, both with respect to their personal lives and the matter of the appointment of higher clergy by the secular powers. Bishops and abbots had become lords of their manors, rather than good shepherds. In 1057, Peter was made cardinal bishop of Ostia, reluctantly leaving the monastic life for the missionary work. Although he attempted to return to the monastery in 1067 by resigning from his bishopric, it did not last, for he was sent by the Holy Father on diplomatic missions. As he returned from these, he became ill and died at the monastery in Faenza in 1072.

Peter Damian

19. Anselm of Canterbury (feast day 21st of April). Also called Anselm of Aosta and Anselm of Bec, this monk-scholar and speculative theologian and, like Peter Damian, a champion of the liberty of the Church before the growing power of the secular kingdoms, was like Peter drawn from the cloister into the complicated politics of his time. He was born in AD 1033 in Aosta and was given over to the Benedictines by his mother for his primary education. He would have joined the Order early, but was prevented by his father, who was a worldly man. Anselm himself grew worldly and became an adventurer, but finding himself one day at the Benedictine abbey in Bec, and attracted to the famous Lanfranc of Pavia, the prior there, Anselm returned to his studies and joined the Order at 27 and was soon ordained. When Lanfranc was moved to Caen as abbot, Anselm became prior at Bec and teacher of the school, always a lenient but demanding authority. In 1079, Anselm was elected abbot, at just about the time when the Order was sending monks to England to pursue the renewal of the Order there. Lanfranc himself travelled over and became the first archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman invasion. That invasion had unsettled life in England and Lanfranc asked Anselm to help restore order; Anselm grew so popular that, when Lanfranc died, he was elected archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. At once, he had to struggled to keep the Church free from the English monarchy, always with the support of the Holy Father in Rome. Nevertheless, he suffered exile from 1103 to 1106. He spent his last years in study and instruction, dying in 1109. Anselm is called the father of scholastic theology and is entitled the Magnificent Doctor. He taught that a theologian does not depend on his personal intelligence but must cultivate a vivid experience of faith – knowledge thus proceeds from faith brought to experience in a life of holiness and devotion. The Holy Father Benedict XVI calls this ‘contemplative intuition.’ Anselm believed, in order that he would be able to understand – reason is preceded by and relies upon faith.

Anselm of Canterbury (unknown artist, line engraving, late 16th century)

20. Bernard of Clairvaux (feast day 20th of August). Called the last of the Fathers of the Church for his affection for the tradition of the Fathers, which he brought back to the forefront in his time, Bernard was born in AD 1090 in Fontaines into a family of saints. In his youth, he was received his training in the classical arts at Chatillon-sur-Seine, but at 20 he entered the monastery at Citeaux, a stricter observance than the other monasteries of the age. A few years later, at 25, Bernard was sent to found the monastery at Clairvaux, where as the abbot he was able to bring about his ideal vision of the monastic life – a revitalisation of the Benedictine Order that resulted in the formation of the Cistercian communities that still flourish today in many places. The community at Clairvaux quickly became the mother of newer foundations. In those early years, Bernard began a ministry of letter-writing and sermon-delivery, alongside the composition of various tracts and other essays. Like the other monk Saints of this period, Peter Damian and Anselm of Canterbury, this gifted man was quickly drawn from the cloister and into the politics of his time, while simultaneously making numerous monastic foundations for both male and female communities. He took up battle against philosophers like Peter Abelard and heretics like the Cathars. He also defended the Jewish communities from the periodic bursts of anti-semitism that occurred now and again. In his final years, Bernard had to end his missionary journeys around Europe, but continued his writing. He died in AD 1153, suffering from the negativity that followed the failure of the crusaders, for Bernard had greatly inspired this movement to restore justice in the Holy Land. He had been forty years a monk, and was the first Cistercian to be placed on the lists of the Saints in 1174.

Pope Benedict speaks only of Bernard’s mysticism with regard to union with God through Christ and his affection for the Blessed Virgin. Bernard called Christ ‘honey in the mouth, song to the ear, jubilation in the heart,’ emphasising Christ before all philosophical streams of thought in his time – nothing meant anything to him, unless he could see Christ in it. True knowledge comes therefore through a personal experience of Christ and His love. And then there is his love for our Blessed Lady and her part in the story of salvation. He knew that Mary was also a route to Christ, and that her participation in the sacrifice of her Son gave her a privileged place in the master plan. I think all of that puts the heart into the intellectual exercise of theology, and prioritises prayer in the best of the traditions of the Church. And the extravagant devotion to Mary, of which Bernard was a champion, continues to be part of the Catholic soul.

Bernard of Clairvaux

21. Anthony of Lisbon (feast day 13th of June). Anthony was born Fernando (Fernão, Ferdinand) to a noble family of Lisbon in about AD 1195 and early in life joined the Augustinian canons at Saint Vincent’s monastery outside Lisbon city and later at the community of the Holy Cross in Coimbra, Portugal’s university city. He devoted his time to the study of Holy Scripture and the work of the Fathers of the Church. While in Coimbra, in 1220, the relics of Franciscan missionaries who had travelled to Islamic Morocco and there been martyred were exposed for the veneration of the faithful. Fernando was released from the Augustinian community and joined Saint Francis’ Friars Minor, desiring to imitate the martyrs in their zeal for the Faith, and taking the name Anthony. But illness forced him to change direction and, in 1221, he found himself in Assisi and before Saint Francis himself. He then lived a hidden life among the other friars, until a chance event (when a preacher was not available for an ordination and he was asked to step in) demonstrated his extraordinary ability as a preacher and teacher. The Franciscans immediately gave him the appropriate duties and he became famous throughout Italy and France, probably the first of the theology instructors of the Order of Friars Minor. With Francis’ own blessing, Anthony laid the foundations for Franciscan theology, which reached great heights with Saint Bonaventure and Blessed Duns Scotus. Anthony eventually became provincial superior of the Order in northern Italy, retiring finally to the region of Padua, near Venice, where he died in AD 1231. For his prodigious ability with Scripture, the Holy Father Gregory IX called him the Ark of the Testament, and a stream of miracles made him officially a Saint only a year after his death.

Late in his life, Anthony had ordered two sets of sermons, one for Sundays and one on the Saints, for the use of the Franciscan preachers and teachers. In these, he interpreted Scripture so powerfully, bringing the Gospel to life so well, that the Holy Father Pius XII, in naming him a Doctor of the Church, called him the Doctor Evangelicus, the Evangelical Doctor. It is possible to purchase both these sets as single volumes; see here, for example. Anthony speaks of prayer as a relationship that engenders a conversation with God. Pope Benedict describes the sequence of prayer recommended by Anthony as opening up one’s heart to God’s presence, then making that conversation, then presenting our needs to Him, and finally praising and thanking Him. Knowledge of God and of Christ obtained through prayer rather than study, and better obtained through prayer, continues to feature in later Franciscan theology. Anthony also urged the people to charity, by which they could befriend the poor, who would later receive them well in their turn. Anthony’s teaching was christocentric, and invites us to contemplate the mysteries of the life of Christ, in its humility and love, with a focus on the Nativity of Christ and His Sacrifice on the Cross. In Christ, we find the love and gratitude we owe to Almighty God and the love we owe to our fellow human beings.

Anthony of Lisbon

22. Albert the Great (feast day 15th of November). That name alone demonstrates the magnitude of Saint Albert’s achievements, both intellectually and in his pursuit of holiness. He lived in the thirteenth century, a scholar at one of the greatest university cities at the time, Padua, obtaining a comprehensive foundation in the liberal arts, which at that time included the natural sciences (what people today simply call Science). And Albert was among the great natural scientists (read Scientists) of his time. At Padua, Albert joined the new Dominican Order, inspired by the preaching of Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the successor to Saint Dominic as master general of the Order, who gave Albert the habit. He was assigned to a series of Dominican studia and he ended up in Paris. Later, in 1248, he erected a studium at Cologne and brought with him one of his students from Paris, the great Thomas Aquinas (below). They became close friends and collaborators and in 1254, Albert became provincial of the Teutonic province, which covered the houses of the Order in much of northern Europe. The Holy Father Alexander IV wanted Albert for a personal theologian at various time and eventually made him bishop of the troubled diocese of Regensburg, which Albert was able to successfully reform. He later served as a preacher in Germany and Bohemia and returned to Cologne to continue his scholarly work and to serve an informally diplomatic role between the city and the archbishop. He also worked for union with the Christian East at the Council of Lyons of 1274 and spent much time defending his friend, Saint Thomas, from his detractors. Albert died in his cell in 1280, an acclaimed scholar and holy bishop. Given his multiple interests in physics, chemistry, astronomy, minerology, botany, zoology, etc., the Holy Father Pius XII named him patron of the natural sciences, called him the Doctor Universalis (Universal Doctor). This shows above all that the natural sciences don’t have to be alienated from the theological sciences, nor faith from reason. The study of the sciences can become a hymn of praise and an act of worship, as Pope Benedict notes. Before Thomas, Albert was able to accept Aristotelianism for the value human reason could provide to human knowledge prior to the received revelation of God. Like Thomas after him, Albert was able to distinguish between philosophy (source, reason) and theology (source, revelation), both however united in their origin in the absolute Truth of the Wisdom of God.

Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), German philosopher

23. Bonaventura of Bagnoregio (feast day 15th of July). Born Giovanni di Fidanza in about AD 1215, with an early devotion to Saint Francis, that grew when he encountered the Friars Minor in Paris, where he had completed his secondary education. Convinced that the life of Saint Francis was similar to the life of the earliest Christians, and so of divine origin, he applied to join and was clothed in the habit in 1243, with the name Bonaventura. He then acquired a strong formation in theology at Paris, specialising in Scripture and the Sentences of Peter Lombard. In Paris at the time, there was a movement by the secular clergy against the Dominicans and Franciscans teaching at the university, for they had upset the status quo with their unique (for the time) lifestyles and they were receiving much acclaim. Bonaventure attempted a defence of the new Orders and their approximation to the perfection demanded by the Gospel. By the personal intervention of the Holy Father Alexander IV, in 1257, Bonaventure was made doctor and master of the university, but he was obliged to give it up when he was made master general of the Order. To unite the friars, he at once proposed and had ratified a compilation of the norms regulating the life of the Order. To standardise the teaching of Saint Francis, he also researched and put out the biography of the Saint called the Legenda Maior, which was revised and reduced to form the Legenda Minor, which became the official biography. In 1273, the Holy Father Gregory X made Bonaventure a bishop and cardinal and asked him to prepare the second council of Lyons, attempting to reunite the Latin and the Greek churches, which Bonaventure worked hard at but was unable to complete, dying in 1274.

Bonaventure is known by the Church as the Seraphic Doctor. Like Saint Thomas, he was optimistic about human nature and human reason. Thomas thought that theology was both an intellectual exercise of coming to know God and a practical exercise of growing in moral rectitude. But, where he prioritised the intellectual practice, Bonaventure provides a third way, which embraces both the first two: knowledge of Christ naturally proceeds towards love and moral development. His priority is love of God and unity with God in love, over knowledge through study. But these are two approaches to union with God; reason is still valid, but is transcended by love, as shown by Christ Crucified. And finally, in the ascent towards God, always beyond our strength and so the work of God Himself, Bonaventure thought that prayer was indispensable.


24. Thomas of Aquino (feast day 28th of January). Saint Thomas was born in about AD 1225 to a noble family of the Aquino region of the Campania, below Rome, not far from the great Benedictine foundation at Monte-Cassino, where he received his primary education. He then moved to Naples, capital of the kingdom of Sicily, for his secondary education. Here he discovered the philosophy of the ancient philosopher Aristotle, and he discovered his vocation to the recently born Order of Preachers, established under the leadership of Saint Dominic. His noble family refused to accept his joining a mendicant Order and he had to take leave from his community to stay at home for a while. He returned to the Order later and was sent to Paris to study under the famous German Dominican Saint Albert the Great, and they soon built a strong friendship and Albert would have liked to carry Thomas across to Cologne, where the German Dominicans wanted to build a study hall. There, as in Naples, Thomas found the fever for Aristotelianism, newly discovered by Europe centuries after the decline of the Roman Empire. At a time when Europe was pitting the new learning (mainly Aristotelianism) against the classical Christianity as represented by the Saints, such as Saint Augustine of Hippo, Thomas was to discover and demonstrate a synthesis of both philosophical traditions, and so a synthesis of faith (represented by Christian revelation) and reason (represented by pre-Christian Greek philosophy) within a single philosophical system. Thomas returned to Paris to fill a chair as professor of theology, and Scriptural exegete. He travelled widely as a Dominican friar, at one point drawing up the programme of studies for the Order, and at another composing liturgical texts for the feast of Corpus Christi, at the request of the Holy Father Urban IV. He has given us our greatest Eucharistic hymnography: the Pange Lingua Gloriosi, the Adoro Te devote, etc. From 1265 to 1268, Thomas lived in Rome and directed another hall of study for the Order, and began to write his seminal Summa Theologica. He was also a gifted preacher, able to distil his immense knowledge into a simple delivery to ordinary people. In 1273, he made it known privately that he wished to end all his work because he had realised mystically in the course of offering Mass that all his past work until that point was thoroughly worthless – probably a way of saying that God is beyond any human conception in His beauty and majesty, which we will experience only beyond this world. He died not long after at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova.

The popes have delighted in Saint Thomas’ theological system and the Holy Father Leo XIII named him patron of Catholic schools and universities in 1880. It has been that synthesis of two distinct systems, one based on pure reason (pre-Christian) and the other on the the Christian philosophy that had developed until Thomas’ time, that was vital in the nineteenth century, at a time when reason and faith was increasingly seen as incompatible. We can see, thanks to Thomas, that both these sciences, those of rational philosophy and of Christian philosophy come from the one divine Wisdom, and so must at least have an inner unity and support each other, while maintaining their mutual independence. In a related story, Thomas also developed the doctrine of sanctifying grace, the action of the Holy Ghost upon our human nature that builds us up to transform us, to divinise us, to bring to life within us the various Christian virtues that enable us to live the Gospel, if we are open to this grace in our lives. For you see, with his optimism about human nature, Thomas was able to see humanity not as entirely corrupt but as weakened and salvageable, and certainly to be an increasingly perfected image of God. Among Saint Thomas’ available works today stands supremely the Summa Theologica, a rather long and fairly comprehensive rational grappling with the Christian Faith, a rationalism that is at the same time accompanied by prayer. Aside from these Summae, including the also-famous Summa contra Gentiles, Thomas has left behind homilies, in which he explains the Creed, common prayers and the Ten Commandments. And lastly, to crown it all, Thomas, like every other Dominican, was a great devotee of the Blessed Virgin.

Thomas Aquinas

25. Catherine of Sienna (feast day 29th of April). The first of two lady Saints and Doctors from the late medieval period, Catherine, like the great monks of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, was drawn from the life of prayer into the politics of her time. Born in AD 1347 in Sienna, she joined the third Order of the Dominicans as a teenager, after a mystical visit from Saint Dominic. This third Order of lay women was called the Mantellate. She had already made a private vow of virginity and gave her life to prayer, penance and works of mercy. She became known for her holiness and as a spiritual director (she became known as Mother, in the same way that priests are called Father), with an extraordinary range of people approaching her for guidance, potentates, plebs, Religious, and even the Holy Father Gregory XI who was still living in Avignon, and whom Catherine convinced to return to where he belonged – the city of Rome. She travelled about Europe, working for the reform of the Church and for peace among nations, and for this the Holy Father John Paul II named her co-patroness of Europe. But Catherine was also persecuted to an extent, and even subjected to an inquisition by her Order in 1374. She died in 1380 and her first Life was written by her confessor and spiritual son, the priest Blessed Raymund of Capua. Catherine’s teaching resides in the Dialogue of Divine Providence, her Epistolerio and her collection of Prayers. One of the famous moments of her life was her mystical espousal to Christ, a service conducted by the Blessed Virgin herself; she received a wonderful ring that only she could ever see. This union with Christ was followed by another mystical vision reported by Blessed Raymund, in which Christ exchanged her heart for His own; thus did she love with the love of Christ Himself. Catherine had a great devotion to the Precious Blood of Christ and a great love for the Church, which directed her work of Church reform.

Catherine of Sienna

26. Teresa of Ávila (feast day 15th of October). One of the great heroes of the sixteenth-century reformation of the Church (the actual reformation, not that protestant movement) was the Spanish Carmelite Saint Teresa of Jesus, a prolific writer and an eminent Doctor of the Church. She was born at Ávila in 1515 and inspired at an early age by the Lives of the martyr Saints and even tried to run away from home to get to Africa. In her desire to see God, she realised as a child that all things will pass away, while only God remains always; she would only need to be patient. She was later taught by Augustinian nuns and, together with her love for reading, this led her to the life of prayer and recollection. At twenty, she joined the Carmelites at Ávila and, after 1554, began to have mystical experiences, almost simultaneously proceeding to reform her Order. In 1562, she achieved the foundation of the first reformed Carmel at Ávila, and began to work together with the Carmelite friar, Saint John of the Cross, and together they founded the Order of Carmelites Discalced (OCD), with the first house at Duruelo. Her own reformed houses were joined to this one and in 1580, the independent province of the Discalced Order was established by Rome. Teresa died in 1580, on her way back to Ávila, after founding a new convent at Burgos. She was canonised in 1622 by the Holy Father Gregory XV, alongside Francis Xavier, Ignatius of Loyola and Philip Neri – a most blessed company.

With no formal academic training, Teresa was an avid reader, reading the Fathers, and general theology and spirituality. She left us principally a work called the Book of the Lord’s Mercies (aka. the Book of Life, 1565), a biography of her direction under Saint John of Ávila. Other popular works are the Way of Perfection (1566), which provided spiritual direction to novices of the Order, and the Interior Castle (1577), a map of the human soul and its progress towards God under the action of the Holy Ghost. In her Book of the Foundations, she documents the life of the new Order. Teresa’s main themes include the evangelical virtues as the basis of Christian life, detachment from earthly possessions, humility in the love for truth, and the school of virtues in general. Prayer, she said, was the entrance into the Interior Castle of the human soul; prayer, she said, is being on terms of friendship with God and speaking with Him in private. Prayer progresses from merely vocal prayer and develops into meditation/recollection and arrives at spiritual union with God. She counselled the imitation of Christ through meditation on his life and on the mystery of the Eucharist.

Teresa of Ávila

27. Peter Canisius (feast day 21st of December). Peter Kanis was born in 1521 at Wijmegen in Holland and his father was a leading citizen of the town. As a student at Cologne, Peter encountered the Carthusian monks of Saint Barbara, but he joined the newly-born Society of Jesus in 1543 in Mainz, having completed the spiritual exercises under the guidance of Father Pierre Favre, and was ordained at Cologne. He attended the Council of Trent as theologian to Cardinal Otto of Augsberg in 1546, but was redirected in 1548 to Messina by Father Ignatius of Loyola, the superior general of the Jesuits. He acquired a doctorate in theology at Bologna in 1549 and Ignatius sent him up to Germany, to which he became an apostle in the aftermath of the Lutheran rebellion. He centred his work originally on the duchy of Bavaria, with academic leadership at Ingolstadt. As diocesan administrator in Vienna, he prepared his Catechism. He also became first superior of the Jesuit province of upper Germany in 1569, and led a prolonged campaign of Catholic renewal in the protestant heartlands. In 1580, he withdrew to Fribourg, to concentrate on preaching and writing, where he died in 1597. In 1897, the Holy Father Leo XIII called him the ‘second Apostle of Germany,’ the first being Saint Boniface. His literary work is profuse: editions of the writings of Fathers like Saint Cyril of Alexandria and Saint Jerome, devotional books in multiple languages, biographies of Saints, homiletics. But he is best known for his Catechisms, composed between 1555 and 1558. With a focus on prayer and worship in the holy liturgy, an intense love of Christ and dedication to the Church, Saint Peter became one of the greatest of the sixteenth-century Church reformers.

Peter Canisius

28. John of the Cross (feast day 14th of December). John is known to have reformed the Carmelite Order significantly, with the assistance of his friend, another great Saint, Teresa of Ávila. John is called the Mystical Doctor, because of his spiritual experiences and his ability to present those didactically to the Church. He was born in AD 1542 near Ávila to a rather poor family, for his father had been disowned for marrying a below his station. When he lost his father, he moved away to Medina del Campo, near Valladolid, where he acquired some medical skill and worked briefly as a nurse. At 18, he entered a Jesuit College and was given a classical education and discovered his vocation to the Religious life. In 1563, he began his noviciate in the Carmelite Order, becoming Fra Juan de Santo Mattía, whereupon he completed his education at Salamanca. Ordained priest in 1567, he returned to the community at Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass, and met his life-long friend Saint Teresa. She had a plan to reform the Order and requested his assistance. Together, in 1568, they opened the first house of the Discalced Carmelites (OCD), at Duruelo – a community of friars who lived according to the primitive rule of the Carmelites. John now took the new name, John of the Cross. In 1572, Teresa asked him to be chaplain and confessor at her own convent of Sisters in Ávila. This was a time of great friendship, and many of their greatest literary achievements date to then. Reforming an existing Order, brought great suffering to the reformers – John was at one point in 1577 imprisoned at Toledo for four months by his confreres, and he spent that time composing his best known work: the Spiritual Canticle. Finally, he made a daring escape to the nuns in that town and went to Andalusia. He rose within the Order to be vicar general and returned home as part of the government of the now well-recognised discalced Carmelites. He lived for a while in Segovia, but was later directed to the new province in Mexico. While preparing for the voyage westward, he fell ill and died AD 1591. His relics were removed to Segovia where, after several subtractions, they still remain.

John’s great works are the Ascent of Mount Carmel, the Dark Night, the Spiritual Canticle and the Living Flame of Love. Like Saint Teresa, he speaks of the progressive purification of the soul in her growing possession of God, in the transforming union with her Maker. His image of the soul falling ever deeper in love with God is that of her bursting into flame as she learns to cooperation with the grace of God to ascend towards perfection. The Dark Night of the Soul presents a vision similar to the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible and demonstrates God’s drawing the soul towards Himself, while performing the vital act of purification of the senses within her. So, then, John’s constant theme is holiness. Like Saint Thomas Aquinas, he is optimistic about human nature, and he speaks therefore of the increasing perfecting of what is already in essence good (for it was created by God), by the progressive elimination of dependence on created things and so a turning towards God. In this, it is God who principally acts, although we would do well to cooperate with His grace, through living a virtuous life. And this is just where the Mystical Doctor becomes a practical theologian and a model of the Christian life, for he lived what he taught and did his greatest work while suffering terribly.

John of the Cross

29. Robert Bellarmine (feast day 17th of September). Born in Montepulciano in the north of Italy in 1542, Robert was related to the Holy Father Marcellus II, was given the best available education and then joined the Society of Jesus, specialising in the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the work of the Church Fathers. Ordained in 1570, he taught first in Louvain and then in the Roman College, then a Jesuit institution, and received the chair of apologetics – the science of the defence of the Church and her theology. He therefore became a powerhouse of the so-called ‘counter-reformation,’ that is, the actual reformation of the Catholic Church, following the Council of Trent. As a teacher in Rome, he had already assembled a course of lessons called the Controversies, but between 1588 and 1594, he was spiritual director and then superior of the community at the Roman College. The Holy Father Clement VIII made him papal theologian and consultor to the Holy Office. One of his most popular works was a short catechism called Christian Doctrine. Clement VIII made him a cardinal in 1599 and archbishop of Capua in 1602. Under the Holy Fathers Leo XI and Paul V, he was recalled to Rome, becoming a member of various curial bodies, such as the Holy Office, the Congregation for Rites and the Congregation for the propagation of the Faith, among other diplomatic appointments. His final works were based on his spiritual exercises in the Ignatian tradition and he died in 1621.

Saint Robert’s Controversies remain a standard for Catholic ecclesiology, sacramentology and anthropology, addressing protestant challenges, in which he applies reason to the Tradition of the Church, clearly defining Catholic doctrine. His ministerial work made him a hardworking preacher, as given by his hundreds of homilies in various locations. To this may be added his commentaries on Scripture, and especially the epistles of Saint Paul. And then there are other spiritual works that cannot be listed here comprehensively. His theme was personal conversion as a source of every other reform, devotion to God and communion with Him.

Robert Bellarmine

30. Lawrence of Brindisi (feast day 21st of July). Born in Brindisi in AD 1559, Julius Caesar Russo, like so many others, was attracted to the story of the poor man of God, Saint Francis. When his father died, his mother entrusted him to the Friars Minor Conventual in Brindisi. But when later he and his mother moved to Venice, he discovered the Capuchins, a more austere Franciscan Order than the contemporary Friars Minor of Saint Francis. At this moment, the Capuchins had given themselves over to the reform of the Church according to the deliberations of the Council of Trent. He was professed with them, and took the name Lawrence, in 1575, ordained in 1582. Already, in training, he had demonsrated significant intellectual ability, especially linguistically, taking on Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Syriac easily, together with the more modern European languages. His knowledge of Scripture and even rabbinic literature was so profound that he impressed the rabbis, but he was also able to join it to his knowledge of the Fathers and become a walking Catechism, especially in the midst of the disunity caused in Europe by the protestant movement. He was able to carry on this work of preaching and teaching inspite of his growing responsibilities within the Order – he became professor of theology, novice master, and very often was appointed provincial and definitor general, and even minister general between 1602 and 1605. And then, he was a master of the spiritual life, at prayer and offering Holy Mass. And a talented diplomat, whose ability was made use of by popes and princes to negotiate peace, at a difficult time for Europe, with the Ottoman Turks pushing hard at the walls. It was on one of these diplomatic missions, to Lisbon, where he had to meet the king of Spain that Lawrence died in 1619. His immense knowledge of Scripture, and theology in general and his sermons have earned him the title Doctor Apostolicus – Apostolic Doctor – given him by the Holy Father John XXIII in 1959. He was also an expert mariologist (the science of the Blessed Virgin) and a pneumatologist (science of the Holy Spirit), but its is his love for Holy Scripture that crowns him, for me.

Lawrence Brindisi

31. Francis of Sales (feast day 24th of January). Born in AD 1567, Francis was the son of the Lord of Boisy, a noble from Savoy. He studied theology at Paris and law at Padua. Deeply affected by the work of Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas while at Paris, Francis surrendered himself to God in love, a love independent from any consequence it would bring him. Against the wishes of his father, who had had great plans for his brilliant son, Francis was ordained in 1593. In 1602 he was bishop of Geneva, at at time when that city and its surrounds had already fallen deeply into Calvinism, so his cathedral was exiled to Annecy. A practical theologian with a copious ministry of preaching and teaching, writing and publication, Francis was an ardent promoter of the reform of the Church, according to the principles and requirements of the Council of Trent. With a mild and gentle approach and the cultivation of personal relationships, Francis was able to return whole communities from protestantism to the Church and was assigned to diplomatic and peace-bringing activities in Europe. But he is best known today as in his lifetime as a spiritual director of souls, his most popular work being his Introduction to the Devout Life. He also became the co-founder of a religious order after he had met Jean-Frances de Chantal: their Foundation of the Visitation (Visitation Sisters) was characterised by consecration to God in simplicity and humility. Francis died at 55, in 1622. He is often called a ‘Christian humanist,’ and much of his spiritual direction demonstrate the theology of the laity that was so much a part of the reform of the Church after the damage caused by the protestant movement. In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis demonstrates the ascent of human reason to the point where knowledge is united with love; man has it planted in his heart that he should love God above all things and is constantly called to that summit, so that the journey towards union with God is begun with the recognition of that desire for it. Francis says that love does not compel, rather it draws towards itself, inviting the soul towards a complete surrender to God’s Will and His good pleasure. And the consequence of union with God is joy, personal fulfilment and a blossoming of practical charity.

Francis de Sales

32. Alphonsus of Liguori (feast day 1st of August). Son of a noble family of Naples, Alphonso Maria de Liguori was born in 1696 and was an influential figure in the eighteenth-century Church. Extremely intelligent, he obtained a legal degree at age sixteen, and was the most successful lawyer in Naples throughout that career. And in 1723, he abandoned that lucrative profession and, despite the opposition of his father, studied for the priesthood, applying his considerable intellect to theology, Scripture study and Church history. He was ordained in 1726 and embarked on a ministry of catechesis to the poorest and the simplest of people in Naples, teaching them prayer and morals. Alphonsus and other priests working in association with him established a system of evening prayer and meditation sessions that became known as ‘evening chapels,’ which became an effective remedy for sin and vice in the parts of the city they served. At 35, Alphonsus left the city to help people in the countryside, surprised by their ignorance of the Faith and the spiritual neglect they suffered. In 1732 he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, which we call the Redemptorists, later becoming its superior. The Redemptorists thus began as missionaries to the villages most distant from the city, and this continues to be the spirit of the Order. In 1762, Alphonsus became bishop of Sant’Agata dei Gothi in Rome, a position he gave up because of illness in 1775. He died after much suffering in 1787. Alphonsus is so well known for his holiness and his dedication to moral improvement that the Holy Father Pius XII in the twentieth century called him patron of confessors and moral theologians. Alphonsus led a quiet resistance to Jansenism, a religious movement that attempted to present a new image of God that pushed Him away from man; he advocated to the Catholic teaching authority a fidelity to the moral doctrine of the Church, but accompanied by a charitable and gentle attitude to penitents, to draw them to conversion and perseverance. Much of Alphonsus’ work, aside from his theological works, are useful to Catholics today; Pope Benedict mentions the Eternal Maxims, the Glories of Mary and the Practice of loving Jesus Christ. Alphonsus recommended above all the visit to the Blessed Sacrament, which today we call Adoration. And he was devoted utterly to the Blessed Virgin, whom he called Mediatrix of all graces, Mother, Advocate, Queen, a great comfort at our lives’ end.

Alphonsus de Liguori

33. Thérese of Lisieux (feast day 1st of October). One of those wonderful, modern-day Saints, smiling at us out of black-and-white photographs, is the young French Carmelite, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus. She died at only twenty-four at the very end of the nineteenth century, in 1897, having led the cloistered life of the discalced Carmelites since she was fifteen. She is immensely popular, and in England is only a little less frequently represented in churches than the Franciscan wonder-worker, Saint Anthony. The Holy Father John Paul II named Thérèse a Doctor of the Church in 1997, long after her writings had been published and become well-known. The Holy Father Pius XI had already named her Patroness of the Missions in 1939, because of her ongoing service of prayer for the Catholic Missions around the world. Thérèse was born at Alençon, in Normandy, and the family moved to Lisieux after the death of her mother. From the moment of her first Holy Communion, she dedicated her life to Christ. The Holy Father spoke of her ‘spiritual motherhood,’ by which, even at age fourteen, she found herself interceding in prayer for an impenitent criminal on death row. At fifteen, she went with her father and sister to Rome, and requested the Holy Father Leo XIII personally to allow her to enter the Carmel at Lisieux at once, long before the age permitted by the order. This was granted a year later. Thérèse was professed in the community in September, 1890, and asked Christ at once for the gift of his infinite Love, that she could be the smallest and that all who died on that day be saved. That profound love is the story of the rest of her life, her constant intercession for sinners, her devotion to the Gospel and the Blessed Sacrament and the Divine Mercy. Thérèse leaves behind for us her autobiography, the Story of a soul, which was published soon after she died – a story of the complete gift of self to the Love of God, for service to all others.

Thérese of Lisieux

The newest of the Doctors (by order of their recent appointment, from AD 2012) are:

  1. John of Ávila (feast day 10th of May).
  2. Hildegarde of Bingen (feast day 17th of September).
  3. Gregory of Narek (feast day 27th of February).