A statue of St. Jerome, one of the Fathers of the Church, is encased in a wall at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Greta Haussmann, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception)

A statue of St. Jerome, one of the Fathers of the Church, is encased in a wall at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Greta Haussmann, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception)

Almost as soon as anyone begins to explore Christian heritage, he or she invariably runs across references to “the Fathers of the Church” or “early Church Fathers.” One gets the clear impression that whoever they are, these people are important!

Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic writers all tip their hats to them. Popes and councils constantly quote them.

All this begs the question, however: Just who are these people and why are they so important?

First of all, let’s eliminate some possibilities. The fathers don’t include the apostles and other New Testament heroes — instead, these stand in a class all their own. Neither are great medieval theologians and doctors of the church, like St. Thomas Aquinas, included.

So if all these venerable writers are not Church Fathers, who are?

Truth be told, no official list exists. “Fathers of the Church” as a designation evolved. In the fourth century, when there were disputes over doctrine, people looked back to earlier times, to Christian writers who could establish the way the apostles and immediate disciples had interpreted Scripture.

Since these writers were obviously teachers, and teachers in the ancient world were considered fathers, this group of writers came to be known as “the fathers” or “the Fathers of the Church.”

This title caught on, and over time was broadened to include all Catholic writers who passed on and developed the apostolic tradition from about the second to the eighth centuries. The earliest of these, who lived before the last of the apostles died, came to be called “the apostolic fathers.”

But why this 700-year time period? Because this is the era of the first seven ecumenical councils of the church that defined the two most fundamental Catholic dogmas professed in the creed — the Trinity and Jesus Christ as true God and true man. It’s also the time during which both the canon of Scripture was settled and the traditional liturgies of the church, such as Roman and Byzantine, developed.

The writers who lived during this era played a unique and unrepeatable role: They transmitted the ancient, apostolic tradition and gave this heritage a decisive, classic shape.

Some of the Fathers of the Church were bishops — like the fiery St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest and most courageous preachers of all time. A few were even popes, like St. Leo the Great, who turned Attila the Hun away from ravaging Rome. Others were priests, like the crusty St. Jerome who spent a good deal of his life in a cave in Bethlehem, translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin.

But some were laymen, like St. Justin Martyr, the first great Christian “scholar,” a pagan philosopher turned Christian apologist. Most of these writers were saints. Some of them, such as Tertullian, were definitely not.

But even the most saintly of the fathers is not personally infallible. If they happen to agree on anything, it would be rather extraordinary, since this varied group spans seven centuries and three continents.

But, interestingly enough, they do happen to agree on many points of doctrine, lifestyle and liturgy, and this is a testimony that such teaching did not originate with them, but is something being passed on through them.

It is in this core of common teaching, the consensus of the fathers, that the church, from the earliest times, has regarded as infallible insofar as it conveys the unwritten apostolic tradition and apostolic interpretation of Scripture.

When it comes to doctrine, the importance of the fathers goes without saying. When people claim that Marian devotion was cooked up in the Middle Ages, one can prove otherwise simply by citing the Fathers of the Church.

The same approach can be taken when it is charged that Constantine invented the Trinity or that the church never believed that the Eucharist was the true body and blood of Christ until somewhere in the Dark Ages.

But we don’t just read Scriptures to equip ourselves for theological debate. Neither should we view the fathers’ writings as an arsenal for apologetics.

One of the greatest ways to grow in the spiritual life and be imbued with the Catholic spirit is to read the writings of the early Church Fathers. In approaching their work, we should not simply be looking for information, but formation — to receive from them an authentically Catholic vision and a truly passionate zeal for holiness.

So where’s the ideal starting point? The church has made it simple for us. The Liturgy of the Hours’ Office of Readings is the best place to begin. It provides us with one psalm, a biblical reading and a page from one of the fathers every day.

Best of all, you can get this free on your smartphone using an app such as iBreviary or Laudate. There are also websites where you can read selections of the fathers for free such as NewAdvent.org or CrossroadsInitiative.com.

Wherever you choose to begin, just get started! You owe it to yourself to get to know the early Church Fathers. After all, their stories and their teaching are part of our family heritage.

(D’Ambrosio is author of “When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers.” Connect with him @DrItaly.)