As the synod on synodality continues, much of the media commentary is focussing on the big issues to be discussed, but some of the smaller details are also worth noticing, including the series of patristic texts that Pope Francis gave the assembly as recommended reading as the synod began.

The texts recommended by Pope Francis draw on the work of two patristic (or church father) theologians: St Irenaeus of Lyon (AD 130–200) and St Basil the Great (AD 330–379). Overwhelmingly, Francis focusses on Basil, with just one of the 16 recommended passages coming from Irenaeus.

The excerpts reflect on the Holy Spirit’s role as our advocate, our guide and our source of unity and holiness in the life of the Church.

But who are these church fathers, and what did they say?

St Irenaeus of Lyon and St Basil the Great

St Irenaeus is one of the earliest and most revered Ante-Nicene Fathers for a few reasons. Born in the early decades of the second century, Irenaeus was only a child when he heard Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, preach. Being a disciple of the apostle John, Polycarp was one of the last remaining personal connections to the apostles, and hearing him preach left a profound impression on the young Irenaeus.

Irenaeus’ only surviving text, Adversus haereses (or Against Heresies), is an important source of information on the beliefs of the early church, including its eucharistic theology and its defence of apostolic succession and tradition.

Icon of St Irenaeus of Lyon

Although he was bishop of Lyon in the West, Irenaeus was born somewhere in Asia Minor in the East, and for this reason, on 21 January 2022, Pope Francis declared him a doctor of the Church, giving him the title ‘Doctor of Unity’, since Irenaeus serves as a ‘spiritual and theological bridge’ between Eastern and Western Christians.

St Basil the Great, also known as Basil of Caesarea, was also born in Asia Minor. Along with his younger brother St Gregory of Nyssa and his friend St Gregory of Nazianzus, he is referred to as a ‘Cappadocian Father’ because he was born in Cappadocia, a region that is now part of modern-day Turkey and was the site of significant early Christian activity.

Basil is also a doctor of the Church, referred to as ouranophantor: the ‘revealer of heavenly mysteries’.

As well as being bishop of Caesarea, a monastic and a man devoted to the poor in his region, he was a prolific theologian, writing on many of the debates that raged in his day. In the years following the Council of Nicaea, there was still much confusion about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Basil was one of the writers who helped to clarify this doctrine and to lead ‘Nicene orthodoxy’ into the mainstream at a time when many people held to the Arian belief that Christ was not truly divine.

Basil of Caesarea icon
Icon of St Basil of Caesarea

Life in the Holy Spirit

All the excerpts provided by Pope Francis reflect on the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.

Irenaeus’ short text speaks about the Spirit as the source of the Church’s fruitfulness. ‘Wherefore, we have need of God’s dew, that we might not be burned up or become unfruitful … having received through the Spirit the image and inscription of the Father and the Son, we might make the denarius entrusted to us productive, thereby returning to the Lord the increase in denarii’ (Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, III, 17, 3).

Basil’s writings—taken from his treatise on the Holy Spirit, his epistles and his homilies—focus on the Holy Spirit as the bond of unity between the Church’s diverse nations and as its animating principle.

‘If the Holy Spirit encounters a tax collector who has faith, he makes him an evangelist; if he encounters a fisherman, he turns him into a theologian; if he encounters a repentant persecutor, he transforms him into an apostle for the Gentiles, a proclaimer of the faith, a vessel of choice,’ Basil wrote. ‘Through him, the weak become strong, the poor become rich, uneducated laymen become wiser than the wise …

The Spirit dwells in heaven, has filled the earth, is present everywhere and is not contained anywhere. The Spirit dwells entirely in each person and entirely within God (Basil, De fide, 3).

One of the subheadings suggests that Pope Francis wanted delegates to reflect on how the Holy Spirit is the ‘bond of communion’ between the Church’s disparate parts. In another text, Basil wrote, ‘With an indissoluble bond of concord, he united the whole world, made up of different parts, in a single communion and harmony, so that even the elements placed at the greatest distance from each other seemed united by affinity’ (Basil, Hexaemeron, homily II, 49–61).

This idea fits with Pope Francis’ repeated emphasis on Christian unity being about communion and not uniformity.

Also included within the collection are some reflections on the personal holiness of Christians. Basil frequently quotes the words of St Paul in Ephesians 4:30—‘do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption’—to make the point that we should pay attention to the way we speak and act because the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God, dwells inside of us.

‘Thus, the Spirit is truly the place of the saints,’ Basil says. ‘And the saint is, in turn, a place familiar to the Spirit, because he offers himself to dwell with God and is also called his temple’ (Basil, De Spiritu Sancto, ch. 26, §62, 22–24).

Elsewhere he talks about the Spirit as the one who ‘confirms’ us in the faith: ‘What is confirmation if not perfection in holiness, since “confirmation” means that which is constant, unchanging, firmly established in the good? Holiness does not exist without the Spirit’ (De Spiritu Sancto, ch. 16, §38, 37–42).

With ‘conversations in the Spirit’ being central to the synod process, Pope Francis also drew attention to Basil’s words on ‘chatter’ and ‘idle talk’.

‘When can we judge a conversation as chatter?’ Basil asks. ‘Generally speaking, every word that does not contribute to the fulfilment of the Lord’s will is useless’ (Basil, Regulae brevius tractae, 23).

At one point, Basil’s words are even stronger: ‘You shouldn’t have useless conversations from which you gain nothing. Indeed, even to speak or do good, without it being for the edification of the faith, is to grieve the Holy Spirit of God’ (Basil, Regulae morales, 25).

Pope Francis’ inclusion of these quotations—which come from Basil’s writings on the monastic and ascetic life—shows how significant he believes the conversations in the Spirit are as a means of building up and edifying the Church during the synod.

Banner image: Pope Francis and leaders of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops pray before a working session in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall on 16 October. (Photo by Lola Gomez for CNS.)