Research Centers

Centre for Patristics Studies Luigi Maria Verzé - Genesis


«And the Word became flesh» (Joh. 1:14): the event of the Incarnation.

Don Luigi Maria Verzé, founder of the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele and San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, had totally planned and then realized the Project San Raffaele on that foundation from which both the University and Hospital were born, and from which, by that very fact, there were, are and forever will be animated; the foundation, which is nothing but the historical event, the mysterious occurrence, yet salvific, of the Incarnation of the Word. That event, ungraspable for the human reason, where God and man become one (see: Joh. 17:20-26), i.e. the event where the human and the divine history weave inseparably, is what on which the Project San Raffaele has been made, whose hearbeat echoes in David’s question: “What is Man?” (Psal. 8:4). The entire Project, that is to say University and Hospital, the research on man and the cure of man, is based on the event of the Incarnation, historical yet incomprehensible, in which “the Word became flesh” (Joh. 1:14), in which God became man. Therefore, it is impossible to think about man if not as the one in whom the Word, which “in the beginning was with God, and which was God” (Joh. 1:1.2), “made his dwelling among us” (Joh. 1:14) and came to live. And if the man is himself threefold face, body, soul and spirit (1Thess. 5:23), and if the Incarnation is that event – vertiginous for the human mind, rationally unthinkable, yet historical – in which the divine Word came to dwell in man, thus all the three faces – body, soul, spirit – by Him they are dwelt. The question that goes through and enlivens the Project, hence, is not just: “What is Man?”, but also: “Who is Man?”: in the threefold face of man dwells, that is, the One who is incarnated and lives in him, although He is above and beyond him.

Patristics as philosophical reflection on Incarnate Word

Seeking the man, thus, means seeking the One who is incarnated in him too, who dwells in him, the God’s Word. This is the task that Don Luigi entrusted Project San Raffaele and which pervades all the Project’s life. Those who first have wondered “what is Man” in the light of the mysterious and, yet, extraordinary event of the Incarnation, and moreover deeply tried to think about that “dwelling” which the Divine Word “made among us” (Joh. 1:14), that historical and salvific union between God and man that only the Incarnation discloses us: those were the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church. Genuine, luminous and essential source for Don Luigi’s whole thought, and moreover, the only shining guide for everyone who seeks “who” the man is, the Fathers were the first ones who, have ever deeply sought the mystery of Incarnation of the divine Son, unique “depths of God” (1Cor. 2:10) – mystery which, however, occurred in human history and, therefore, go fatally through it. Crux for all the Patristic thought was mainly to think of God and man together, i.e. think that perfect and supreme unity which only the Incarnation discloses, and which is nevertheless inconceivable for the human reason. The Patristic era arose from an inescapable and undecidable turning point: on the one hand, indeed, the timeless yet temporally happened historical occurrence of the Incarnation, of the becoming man by God (see: Joh. 1:14); on the other hand, the deep and highly theoretical necessity of lógon didónai, “give reason”, like Plato says (Resp. 510C.7), in order to understand by means of rational concepts and ideas that historical event, yet beyond the human reason, beyond every concepts. Thus, the deep effort of thought of the entire Patristics was titanic: its thinking is vertiginous as well as the Incarnation is, the only and true heart of all the Christian thought.

The Fathers of the Church, hence, were not just gleaming lights throughout the path which leads man to God, but they questioned also the mysterious Incarnate Word in the light of the categories of human reason, and especially in the light of that glorious age preceding the Christian one which was the age of the Greek philosophy. The Fathers were not merely writers, yet Christian philosophers. Their work did not consist merely interpreting, reporting and defending the Holy Scripture, but mostly enlightening the Gospel value through the medium of the classical culture and conciliating between the Christian spirit and the notions of Greek thought – absolute novelty for the Jewish and Pagan tradition. Thus is written by John Paul II in the encyclical in 1998 and named Fides et Ration. He writes as follows: «It is here that we see the originality of what the Fathers accomplished. They fully welcomed reason which was open to the absolute, and they infused it with the richness drawn from Revelation. This was more than a meeting of cultures, with one culture perhaps succumbing to the fascination of the other. It happened rather in the depths of the human souls, and it was a meeting of the creature and the Creator. Surpassing the goal towards which it unwittingly tended by dint of its nature, the reason attained the supreme good and ultimate truth in the person of the Word made flesh» (IV, § 41). The age of Greek and Latin Patristics was, thus, the age of the rise of an actual “Christian philosophy”, a time during which gave birth that colossal attempt to think of the mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Word in man, by means of concepts of the Greek thought, – yet mystery beyond every concept and which inevitably defies any concept.  

Nevertheless, this path that the Christian Fathers covered – their supreme attempt to “give reason” of Incarnation – has to be still explored by the contemporary studies about the ancient Fathers. There are essentially two main scientific approaches which currently prevail in the field of the study about Christian antiquity. First, we find the historical-literary approach: as a matter of fact, the Fathers are not only a golden area wherein the ancient Greek and Latin literal production is reformulated and restored in the light of the Scriptures, though an area wherein takes shape a whole new literature compared to the classical one. While second we find the theological approach: the Fathers, indeed, are not only faithful witnesses of the advent of «Christ’s Mystery in history», as Jean Daniélou says, but they build an actual architectonic system of ideas which includes and unifies what the Scriptures say, and which gives a logic form to what the Gospel illustrates. The Fathers of the Church, thus, are no doubt invaluable writers and speculative theologians, as well as Christian philosophers, ultimate thinkers who have philosophically questioned the event of Incarnation. This further approach about the studies of Christian antiquity makes clear the complex relationship between classic Paganism and Christianity of the first centuries of our era: on the one hand, indeed, the Gospel message is being interpreted by the Fathers and then rebuilt through philosophical concepts of the ancient thought; on the other, the same philosophical concepts of the pagan antiquity acquire fresh meaning in the light of the historical event of Incarnation, that is, in the light of that mystery which nearly revolutionizes them, reformulating at the root.

Rafa-El: ancient Christian Mystic, “medicine” for the soul

The Incarnation is ultimately the historical “place” in which God and man are one, theánthropos, God-man. Hence, there is no way to think of God without even to think of man simultaneously and vice versa. The Project San Raffaele, that actual fact which is based on the faith in the ineradicable ground of Incarnation, performs in itself a twofold mission: on the one hand, if man is “temple” wherein God-man lives, thus there is no way to cure man as anything other than the suffering “tabernacle” of Jesus, whose cross echoes in the human one – the medicine, ultimately, cannot but be holy medicine of God too. On the other hand, if man is the “dwelling” wherein the wedding with God’s Word is celebrated, therefore in the same human reason dwells the «truth» (Joh. 14:6), in his divine intellect is kept the meaning of all things – for this reason, the knowledge may be none other than of that unique “truth”, which is God’s Word, and which has his “life” in man.

The whole structure of the Greek and Latin Patristics is crossed by this theo-anthropologic ground, i.e. by the thought of unity between divinity and humanity, henceforth unbreakable. The purpose of the first theological thought and of the ancient Christian literature was not simply building a philosophical system which will properly “give reason” to the Revelation, but mostly “guide” man throughout the whole journey which leads him to He who is above and beyond man, despite being in him. The highest purpose of Christian Patristics was introducing man in that «dwelling» (Joh. 1:14), wherein the communion between God and man is fully accomplished, in those «chambers» (Song 1:4) wherein the Incarnation celebrates the mystical wedding of soul and divine Word. An aspect nothing at all fringe rather crucial in the Christian Fathers is the spiritual and catechetical one, which no doubt integrates the theological, literal and philosophical one. The whole Greek and Latin Patristic age is permeated by the Christian “spirituality”, whose undisputed summit is Mystique. Therefore, in addition to be Christian theologians and philosophers, the Fathers are life coaches, bright leaders from whom man let himself be led in that mystical communion between God and man, where Incarnation is the highest proof.

Interdisciplinarity of the Patristics study

Man in himself is a complete unity of body, soul and spirit. The divine Word, thus, becomes incarnate in the whole of man, that is, in man as body, soul and spirit. There is no man who is not dwelt by the divine Word. The sciences which deal with the various man’s faces – namely body, soul and spirit – are several: Medicine for the body, Psychology for the soul, Philosophy for the spirit. Nevertheless, despite man is in himself threefold, i. e. body, soul and spirit, he is the one wherein the divine Word «made his dwelling», came to dwell. Hence, if man is this kind of complete and perfect unity of body, soul and spirit, then every science which deals with man cannot ignore this unity: Psychology cannot purely deal with man’s soul, but man as an unbreakable unity of body, soul and spirit; Medicine cannot purely deal with man’s body, but man as unbreakable unity of the three; Philosophy cannot purely deal with man’s spirit, but with the unity of his three faces. Nonetheless, man is not just unbreakable, inseparable unity of body, soul and spirit, but also the one whose divine Word became incarnate. The sciences of man, thus – Psychology, Philosophy and Medicine – must deal with man not merely as complete, perfect unity of body, soul and spirit, but mainly as “dwelling” wherein God came to dwell (see: Joh. 1:14), as “temple” (see: 1Cor. 6:19), in which we celebrate the Incarnation.

This interdisciplinarity in the sciences of man is crucial in the study of Fathers of the ancient Church too. If man is the unbreakable unity of body, soul and spirit, as well as the “dwelling” and “temple” wherein the Word God came to dwell, then the Christian writers consider man not only as unity of body, soul and spirit and as the one in whom God lives, but they also think about God, about that Word that «in the beginning was, and was with God» (Joh. 1:1) and which in the act of Incarnating, took the man’s body, soul and spirit, i. e. who did not become merely man, yet human body, soul and spirit. The entire Greek and Latin Patristics are deeply enlivened by this twofold idea: on the one hand, thinking about man as unalterable, unbreakable unity of body, soul and spirit and as the one in whom the Word God lives; on the other hand, even thinking about that Word God which, becoming incarnate in man, has by that very fact taken the man’s body, soul and spirit on him.

The Gospel of John: «One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved» (Joh. 13:23)

The apex, the highest point of all the Patristics thought, is clearly the event of Incarnation, the mysterious, yet historical, advent of God-man in the human parable. Nevertheless, it was John, one of  the four evangelists who more than anyone else and more carefully thought about the mystery of Word God’s Incarnation; John was the closest disciple to Jesus during The Last Supper (Joh. 13:23) and during the crucifixion (Joh. 19:26). Although the literary and cultural history of the Fourth Gospel, especially the Introduction, is one the highest, bright and sublime proof which Christianity has ever had as to the indwelling of God in man. If what the Fathers of the Church interrogating most is exactly the mystery of God-man, namely the mystery of Incarnation, and if the evangelist who by far witnessed most this mystery in the greatest outspoken manner is John, then there is no way to get through the history of Christianity without refering to that theology of the Word which gushes from the Fourth Gospel like «living water» (Joh. 4:13), i. e. without seeking in that truth of Incarnation which is in John and in Fathers, they who follow his tracks.

Genesis: Centre for Patristics Studies’ name

The word “genesis”, which comes from the Greek word “gígnomai”, means generation, but it safeguards the idea of birth, of becoming and of coming to be. The key concept in the Greek pagan thought – where it suggests the motion of everything in the universe –, the word génesis becomes the heartbeat of the Jewish thought first and then of the Christian thought. The Septuagint titled the very first book of Pentateuch “Genesis”, the book which indeed talks about God’s creation of the world, the coming to be of everything, the birth of the world from God’s work. With the rise of Christianity, génesis obtains an even higher and more specific meaning compared to what the word had in the pagan thought. As a matter of fact, Génesis is used to indicate not just the eternal generation of the divine Word from God (Col. 1:15; Joh. 1:14; Joh. 3:16; 1Joh. 4:9); however, the creation of man from that Word which «In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God» (Joh. 1:1), and that man who in His image came to life, threefold face of body, soul and spirit (Col. 1:16; Joh. 1:3-4; Joh. 1:13; see: Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5; Rm. 8:14). Thus, exactly how the Only Son is generated from God and He is God himself (Joh. 1:2), so man is created from the divine Son, that in man «made his dwelling» (Joh. 1:14), and that came to dwell in his body, in his soul and in his spirit. The human being’s “genetic code”, hence, is fully inscribed inside the Word God who is the genetic source from which springs man’s life.

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