You might want to know. What exactly is a “Doctor of the Church”?
The word “doctor” comes from the Latin word “docere”, which means to explain or instruct. The Church sees these great doctors of the Church are some of the greatest teachers and instructors of the faith. When the Church reverence someone as a doctor, this does not essentially mean that they were the smartest or the brightest people in terms of academics or scholarship (some of them were, without a doubt). The Church honours these great teachers of the faith for their example to the Church and the world through their lives lived radically for, with, and in Jesus Christ – not regarding if they wrote anything or not.
In 1298, the first four doctors of the Church were officially promulgated. They had been considered as such for a very long time before their official recognition. As of this writing, the Church has declared 36 “Doctors of the Church.” Let’s take a quick look at the first four. You must have heard of them.
St. Ambrose (340-397 A.D.)
Ambrose was born in modern day Trier, Germany. After an illustrious political career culminating in the governorship of Liguria and Emilia, he was made the bishop of Milan by well-known acclamation. Though he did not want this office, he assented to the will of God. After his consecration in 374, he committed the rest of his life to the defense and proclamation of the Gospel. He was against Arianism in all its forms. Ambrose is also credited with supporting antiphonal chanting, where one side of the choir alternately replies to the other side.
Rather his most well-known role was that of mentor and friend to St. Augustine, whom he baptized in 386. He is also famous for making Emperor Theodosius I do public penance for his massacre of thousands in Thessalonica, displaying just what authority the bishops had even in the face of an emperor.
Ambrose was also the first person to be recorded as being able to read quietly (by St. Augustine, no less). Reading was done aloud in antiquity.
His feast day is December 7th.
St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.)
One of the greatest of Christian saints, Augustine was born in Thagaste in what is now modern-day Algeria. His mother played a well-known role in his life and never ceased praying for her son’s conversion to Christianity. After some wandering in his youth and in line with the Manicheans (a dualistic religion emphasizing the dichotomy between light and dark with pagan, gnostic, and Christian elements), Augustine eventually succumbed to God’s grace.
He eventually became a priest and then Bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa. He remained there for the rest of his days. He wrote, preached, and fought against heresy in the Church. He also founded a monastic order called, surprisingly, the Augustinians.
His conversion experience is related in the Confessions, one of humanity’s greatest works. It is particularly a love letter to God. Augustine also wrote the great City of God, as well as numerous other theological and rhetorical works. Close to the end of his life, he published a series of retractions which corrected or expanded on his earlier works. The retractions showed how Augustine’s thinking had transformed from his earlier days, as well as his meditations as an older man.
He died as the barbarians were sacking the city around him, staring at the wall across from his bed on which he had written the psalms. He is known as the “Doctor of Grace.”
His feast day is August 28th.
St. Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.)
Gregory was born in Rome to Gordianus and Silvia. He was the son of a senator and he actually became a Prefect of Rome at age 30. After a stint in a monastery, he returned to public life but finally became pope.
His experiences in public life made him an excellent administrator and he can be reasonably considered the first to build up papal supremacy in the form in which we now recognize it. He began the first large-scale evangelization efforts to convert pagans to Christianity and wrote many works. Of course, he is also known for his contributions to music via the chant named after him and his revisions to the liturgy.
His efforts also included improving the lives of the people in Rome and in establishing alliances among the various barbarian tribes in religion with Rome. His efforts essentially shaped medieval Europe.
His feast day is September 3rd.
St. Jerome (347-420 A.D.)
Jerome was born in Stridon, Dalmatia in what is now modern day Bosnia. He was a priest, theologian, linguist, historian, and confessor. He was also very irascible.
His early life saw him go to Rome to learn rhetoric and philosophy. He was a typical youth and finally his conscience got the better of him. He eventually converted to Christianity. In his different travels, he made many Christian friends and honed his theological skills, finally making his way eastward through ancient Christian territories. These experiences assisted to form who he was to become as a Christian and finally as a priest and theologian.
He is best known for his volunteer to the Church in the form of his Latin translation of the Bible, what is known as the Vulgate Bible. He also wrote Gospel commentaries. His Latin translation was commissioned by Pope Damasus I. Jerome knew Hebrew, Latin, and Greek fluently and started a convent for the woman after his moving over to Bethlehem.
He wrote numerous letters back and forth to different other saints during his lifetime. In other words, Augustine and Jerome even sent letters back and forth to one another. He eventually died on September 30, 420.
His feast day is September 30.