Saint Irenaeus: A Saint for Garment Justice

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

St. Irenaeus

Few priests may recall more than this one quotation from St. Irenaeus, and it is a gem. St. Irenaeus comes a distinguished family tree of disciples. See, St. Irenaeus, as a lad, heard St. Polycarp preach in his hometown of Smyrna (in modern day Turkey). In fact, St. Polycarp was his bishop. Polycarp, as a young man, was a disciple who cared for St. John the Evangelist in his old age. St. Irenaeus then was born somewhere around the year 130, raised in a Christian home, a rather uncommon occurrence in that era. By the time of the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161–180, Irenaeus was a priest in Lyons (now modern day France). While Irenaeus was away delivering a letter to Pope Eleuterus, the bishop of Lyons and others were killed. Upon his return, he became bishop of Lyons, a position that he would hold until his death. Though the details are unclear, St. Irenaeus died around the year 200, most likely as a martyr himself.

Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), St. Irenaeus’ theological masterpiece, is much more than a refutation of the major objections to Christian faith in his time. Alongside De trinitate of St. Augustine and the Summa theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is one of the most impressive expressions of Christian doctrine in the history of the church. That oft-cited quotation from St. Irenaeus is from the fourth book of the Adversus Haereses:  “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero added:

 Gloria Dei, vivens pauper.
The glory of God is the poor person fully alive.

Why is such a phrase so significant? Every person—regardless of gender, race, age, nationality, religion, or economic status—deserves respect. Enshrined within Catholic Social teaching, our dignity does not come from what we have or what we do; it comes from being God’s special creation. When a person is fully alive God shines through. The person lives as a child of God – a person who is to be loved as we love God. The human person fully alive lives with joy, with dignity. Contrast that “human being fully alive” with the conditions within which so many garment workers struggle: illegally low wages, intimidation, and abuse (verbal, physical, sexual, among others). Yesterday’s release of the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report from the U.S. State Department says that we have much to do. For example:

  • Look at the labels on the clothing you are wearing right now. Write them down in a list.
  • Now, compare that list with the following list. I’d be surprised if you are not wearing any item made in a country from the tier two watch list or tier three.
  • Our clothes are made where they are for a reason.

If we genuinely believe that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” then we must act for full human flourishing. We cannot be satisfied with cheap clothes at the expense of suffering garment workers. St. Irenaeus made that clear a long time ago, and, for that reason, St. Irenaeus is a saint for garment justice.

Prayer of St. Irenaeus

It is not you that shapes God
it is God that shapes you.
If you are the work of God
await the loving hand of the artist
who does all things in due season.
Offer Him your heart,
soft and tractable,
and keep the form
in which the artist has fashioned you.
Let your clay be moist,
lest you grow hard
and lose the imprint of his fingers.

– St. Irenaeus