The 'fathers of the church' died around 1,500 years ago, but these ancient leaders still influence Christianity today

Nearly 60 years ago, in October 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. For the 21st time in the Catholic Church’s history, the pope gathered bishops from around the world – several thousand of them – to address matters of church doctrine and practice.

Today, Vatican II is remembered as a landmark council that has shaped Catholic life in modern times. Leaders agreed to reforms, such as greater use of local languages in the Mass, to reinvigorate the church’s mission in a changing world.

In the council’s official documents, however, the bishops frequently cite spiritual guides who died more than 1,000 years before: the fathers of the church.

The spiritual and theological authority of the fathers is recognized not only by Catholics, but also by other Christians, including Eastern Orthodox and Protestant communities. Not all agree on the same list of church fathers, yet Christian leaders have been deeply influenced by the fathers’ teachings, from medieval theologians and Protestant reformers to Pope Francis today.

And while there are no women among the “fathers,” the “desert mothers” – influential religious women from the same era – have also left their mark.

Spiritual fathers

As a scholar of early Christianity, I am often asked about the origins of the concept of a church father.

In Christianity, the honorary title “father” comes from Greco-Roman and biblical ideas about the father as the head of the family. The Roman “pater familias” was responsible for the welfare, education and leadership of the family. He was also considered a priest or religious representative of the household.

In the Bible, the first-century Apostle Paul speaks of himself as a spiritual father to other Christians. The apostles and bishops of the church were treated as believers’ “fathers” insofar as they were responsible for preaching, teaching and leading worship.

Evolving idea

Early Christians started using the title “father” for bishops, but by the fifth century, it was also applied to some priests and deacons.

Over time, theologians began to refer to a specific group of “church fathers” to support their positions amid debate – starting in the fourth century, with the Greek bishops Eusebius, who wrote a history of the Christian church’s first three centuries, and Basil of Caesarea, who lived in what is now Turkey. St. Augustine – the Catholic bishop in Roman North Africa who became famous for his “Confessions” – frequently cited the fathers’ teachings to support his arguments during controversies with theological opponents.