What is it to be a Doctor of the Church?

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In every age of confusion and challenge the Church has faced, the Holy Spirit has bestowed on certain men and women a unique gift of wisdom in living out and passing on the Gospel. And with the varying needs of the age and the natural dispositions of every saint, this gift has taken on many shapes. All 35 doctors have been authentic teachers and guides of the faith in person and writing, but each of them has helped their generation and the following generations follow Christ with renewed fervor and understanding.

The Church has traditionally held three requirements for a saint to be considered a Doctor of the Church: holiness, eminence in doctrine and writing and formal recognition by the Church. It’s important to note these doctors are first and foremost saints. They lived heroic lives of sanctity and virtue and within that, were given the gift of a deeper insight of the faith that answered many questions and needs of their time.

The list of saints that have been awarded this title ranges from great intellectuals to mystics and reformers. We have chosen three doctors to highlight the unique contribution of each to their generation and the following ages. For an introduction to lives of these saints, see The 35 Doctors of the Church by Father Christopher Rengers.

St. Athanasius (c. 297-373)

A fugitive for over 17 years, this man was the most wanted “criminal” of the Roman Empire. He was exiled five times by four different emperors, persecuted, sentenced to death and accused of all sorts of crimes, including practicing magic. What may appear as a story straight out of an action movie is rather the life of the Bishop of Alexandria born at the end of the third century.

Athanasius endured numerous trials in defending the faith against Arianism, a heresy that held that the Son was a creature made by the Father and therefore subordinate and not consubstantial with him. The zealous confessor centered his life around defending the divinity of Christ within a violent and overpowering Arian society. The Arian Heresy was so widely spread throughout the Church that it gave origin to a famous saying: “Arius against the world.”

The patron saint of theologians and first Doctor of the Church presents a testimony of faithfulness to the truth, even when both society and many Church leaders don’t see or accept it. “It would be well if he were a popular saint, for we need his spirit and his arguments once again in the Church,” Father Rengers writes in his book.

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622)

The patron saint of writers and journalists was also a genius, but his simplicity, closeness and approach to sanctity brought about a great and unique contribution to his time and the following generations – so much so that his writing served as a basis for the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the universal call to holiness.

His time presented many challenges, including the numerous effects of Protestant Reformation and a restricting view of holiness. His great zeal led him to want to convert thousands of Calvinists as a young priest. Writing pamphlets to slide under doors that explained the Catholic faith helped him bring some 40,000 people back into the Church.

As bishop, he saw the spiritual direction of the faithful as a top priority. For this reason, he’s known as the “Everyman’s Spiritual Director.” His meekness and affective countenance also won him the title “The Gentleman Doctor.” Francis insisted that the call to holiness was not only reserved to the clergy or those with religious vows, but to every Christian regardless of their state of life. Among his many writings and letters, his book Introduction to the Devout Life has helped lay Christians follow Christ for centuries.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)

Many were surprised when St. John Paul II announced St. Thérèse would be named Doctor of the Church. A common misconception was that the title was only awarded to great intellectual teachers and not to simple followers of Christ like this young woman. The U.S. bishops petitioned this naming to Rome, stating: “Neither her holiness nor her popularity qualify her to be a Doctor of the Church. What justifies the doctorate for her is the depth of her doctrine and the clarity and simplicity with which she expresses it.”

It was the depth and simplicity of the “little way” that put her among this group of great teachers. St. John Paul II said that her teaching “deserves to be considered as the most fruitful.” The Holy Spirit led her on a path that every man and women can identify with because it had the radicality and simplicity of the Gospel at its core. “Humble and poor, Therese shows the ‘little way’ of children who confide in the Father with ‘bold trust,’” St. John Paul II said. “The heart of her message, her spiritual attitude, is for all the faithful.”

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