Not too long ago, I came across a cool map of American Migration based on Ancestry.com’s genealogical data. It started me thinking about how many people I know or have heard about who have decided to delve into their ancestry. Indeed, others have noted that there is a growing number of people who are interested in their genetic history and discovering their roots. Something about being able to point to a specific place, to a specific set of people and say “that’s where I come from” just appeals to us. Now that we have all sorts of resources to do this, we’ve seen how many people are willing to take a look.
Especially in Acadiana, where most of the locals have a shared history of forced migration and a strong sense of cultural tradition, knowing where you come from and who you are related to is a common part of conversation. You meet someone, hear their last name, think about who else has that last name and then the search begins. I’ve witnessed this dozens of times and my own last name almost always triggers an “Oh, I think there are some Alberts around… any relation?” Sadly, I do not know very much about that side of my lineage, so I can’t ever answer the question with any certainty, but that’s another topic really.
Well, What is this Topic, then?
Tradition, of course. It appears that it’s quite natural for us human beings to take an interest in where we come from. The whole question of ancestry naturally ties into the search for identity, for understanding what makes us… us. As Catholics, this natural impulse finds some serious gratification in the fundamental importance we place on Sacred Tradition. Catholics are not just united by a common set of beliefs, but by a sense of joining an ongoing story, of receiving a common inheritance.
A natural birth situates us in a particular family and a particular place, but the supernatural birth of Baptism is not so different. I was baptized at St. Clement of Rome parish in Metairie. Though I do not know the priest’s name, I know he was ordained by a bishop, who was in turn ordained by bishops before him all the way back to the Apostles themselves. In birth, I received some of my father’s height and my mother’s features. In Baptism, I received the virtue of faith and access to the Sacraments, the veins through which grace flows to the whole Christian people.
And, just as we can trace the ancestry of a given person or group, we can trace the ancestry of a teaching or belief. Who said it first? To whom did it pass on? How did it get to be what it is now? Most importantly, is this belief, this teaching part of the family? Is it part of the Truth given to us by Christ, part of the family of faith that we need for salvation?
Today is the Memorial of St. Irenaeus
This man is basically great-great-great-great-grandpappy to all Catholics and really to just about anyone who calls himself a Christian. Not far removed from the time of the Apostles themselves, St. Irenaeus faced a unique set of circumstances. The authority of the Apostles was still something of recent memory, but was quickly fading. Scripture had not yet been codified and no one knew for sure what belonged and what didn’t. In the midst of this uncertainty, the Gnostics were able to rise up and sow some confusion, claiming to have the secret knowledge needed for salvation. This involved a combination of false scripture, misusing actual scripture, and an effective use of mystical and obscure language.
St. Irenaeus did answer their arguments directly, and we can thank him for early biblical scholarship, but one of his most lasting contributions is his argument about our ancestry. His work “Against Heresies” is one of the first to stress Apostolic Succession. When one was faced with the challenge of deciding whether a person or their teaching was actually true to Christ, they could not appeal to one of the Twelve, or to a Catechism, or to an agreed upon Scripture. So, what could be done? According to this doctor of the Church, you look at the roots. Did this come from the Apostles? Or in Cajun, “who’s your momma?”
If your momma is the Church, you can have confidence in the teaching. In an age of mass communication, fake news, and increasing confusion about our identities, it’s important to stop, look back, and to ask “where did I come from?” The same logic applies to our teachings and belief. Even when there is controversy and disagreement within the Church and between high-ranking Church officials, we have some recourse. Nevermind the subtle arguments and reinterpretations. Nevermind the popular opinions and savvy public speakers. Nevermind the supposed teachers of the faith who flatly contradict what Catholics have always believed.
It may not always be the last word or the only answer, but I can tell you that anything a Catholic claims to teach or believe always has to answer this question: “Where did this come from?”
If there’s not an Apostle in the ancestry, then it’s not family.