Wednesday, October 14, 2015

St. Ignatius of Antioch

Reading N°37 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch
from the Menologion of Basil II (ca. AD 1000)

We are totally ignorant of the circumstances that led to the arrest and execution of St. Ignatius. We have no details of his martyrdom. But we possess something better than that: the genuine letters in which the intrepid confessor of the faith, shortly before being ground by the teeth of lions, reveals his great soul. Neither Christian antiquity nor indeed any other antiquity offers anything more beautiful.[1]

Ignatius was condemned at Antioch. His journey to Rome, along the coasts of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, was a triumphal progress. The fame of the holy bishop had spread through all the Church, especially in Asia Minor. Why did Roman justice require that he be put to death in Rome, in the amphitheater? We know that it was customary for the Romans to choose the most handsome men for those spectacles, and not the least of the trials which the Christian martyrs had to undergo was to be thus displayed to satisfy the curiosity of the populace. But beyond the growling wild beasts, beyond the crowd thirsting for excitement, they beheld, like the deacon Stephen, the opened heavens. This is the example that St. Ignatius gave. In the letter which reached Rome ahead of him, he wrote to his beloved brethren:
Pray for me, that God would give me both inward and outward strength, that I may not only be called a Christian, but be found one, when I shall no longer appear to the world. [...] I write to the churches and signify to them all that I am willing to die for God, unless you hinder me.[2] Suffer me to be food to the wild beasts, by whom I shall attain unto God. For I am the wheat of God; and I shall be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. [...] Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breakings of bones and tearing of members, let the shattering in pieces of the whole body, and all the wicked torments of the devil come upon me; only let me enjoy Jesus Christ. [...] Pardon me, my brethren; ye shall not hinder me from living; nor, seeing I desire to go to God, may you separate me from Him for the sake of this world. Suffer me to enter into pure light; where being come, I shall be indeed the servant of God. If anyone has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire.[3]
Not without good reason has this letter been considered to set forth the perfect idea of Christian martyrdom. A Christian martyr is not merely a witness to a dogmatic fact; he is also eo ipso, to use St. Thomas' phrase, a "witness of the faith,"[4] a witness of Christ living in him, of that eternal life to which martyrdom opens the way for him and toward which he rushes with all the strength of his hope and love.[5]

St. Ignatius' letters to the various churches have a still more important bearing. Two great heterodox currents were then flowing through the churches of the East. Some attacked the Savior's divine person, holding that He was simply a man; such were the Ebionites and the Cerinthians. The others attacked His human nature, teaching that the Word of God became incarnate and died only in appearance; these were the Docetae. The former heresy spread especially in the churches of Magnesia and Philadelphia; the latter advanced mostly in the churches of Tralles, Smyrna, and Ephesus. From all these churches there came to the bishop of the great Church of Antioch, to this glorious confessor of the faith, requests for advice. The replies to these requests are the letters to the Magnesians, the Philadelphians, the Trallians, the Smyrnaeans, and the Ephesians.

"There is one God, who manifested Himself through Jesus Christ, His Son," he writes to the Magnesians;[6] and he urges them "to be diligent therefore to be confirmed in the ordinances of the Lord and the Apostles [...] in the Son and the Father and the Spirit."[7] "God manifested Himself through Jesus Christ, His Son, who is His Word proceeding from silence."[8] After so clearly affirming the divinity of Christ, Ignatius also affirms His real humanity. "He is in truth of the family of David according to the flesh [...] truly born of a virgin [...] truly nailed to a tree in the flesh for our sakes.[9] I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the Resurrection."[10]

The two heresies which the confessor of the faith attacks spring from the same root - the Judaizing spirit. The holy Bishop gives warning of the danger. To the Philadelphians he says: "If anyone interpret Judaism to you, do not listen to him."[11] "Be not seduced. To face about would be to give up the grace you have received. The prophets of old are appealed to; but the prophets were disciples of Christ in the Spirit, and to Him they looked forward as their teacher. [...] It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism."[12]

But it was not enough to defend the divinity of Christ against the naturalism of Cerinthus; the reality of His redemptive Incarnation against the fanciful idealism of the Docetae;[13] in a word, the broad ancl full teaching of the Gospel against the narrow conceptions of a decadent Synagogue. It was necessary also to proclaim the great principle that preserves the Church from schism and heresy. On this point the letters of St. Ignatius are of the first importance.

Like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch knows only one guarantee of orthodoxy - obedience to the hierarchy. The Roman pontiff endeavored to prove the legitimacy of that hierarchy by its Apostolic institution. Ignatius is a mystic, and so views this principle from a different angle. He speaks of being "subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ."[14]
It is fitting that you [priests] should live in harmony with the will of the bishop, as indeed you do. For your justly famous presbytery, worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as the strings to a harp. Therefore, by your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is being sung."[15]
The faithful are members of Christ. Ignatius says to them: "It is profitable for you to be in blameless unity, in order that you may always commune with God."[16] "Be united to the bishop and to the presbytery and to the deacons."[17] "The bishops are the thought of Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ is the thought of the Father."[18] For the first time in Christian literature, we find here the name "Catholic Church" pronounced.[19]

But does the holy Bishop of Antioch acknowledge a supreme head of this Catholic Church? It is beyond doubt that he does. The two fundamental principles of his ecclesiology - the hierarchy and unity - presuppose the existence of a sole authority; and the text of his letter to the Romans shows that he considers that the seat of that supreme authority is at Rome.

The beginning of his letter to the Romans, or rather to the Roman Church, is significant. He addresses it "to the Church beloved and illumined," to the Church that "presides in the country of the Romans, that presides at the love-feasts" (the charities).[20] If we weigh these expressions, if we compare them with those used by Ignatius in his letters to the other Churches, there is no room for doubt; here is question of the primacy of the Church of Rome over the entire Catholic Church. The Church of Rome "presides in the country of the Romans," she "presides at the charities." If the martyr had been writing to the Bishop of Rome, these presidencies might be considered merely local in character, because, in his own diocese, the bishop always presides. But here, there is no question of the bishop, but of the Church. Over what did the Roman Church preside? Was it merely over some other Churches or dioceses, within a limited area? Ignatius had no idea of a limitation of that kind. Besides, were there in Italy any Christian communities distinct in their organization from the community of Rome? The most natural meaning of such language is that the Roman Church presides over all the Churches.[21]


[1] Allard, Ten Lectures on the Martyrs, p. 183.
[2] St. Ignatius may have feared that the intervention of the Christians at Rome would obtain the Emperor's favor, or rather that the earnestness of their prayers would rob him of the martyr's crown.
[3] Funk, Patres apostolici, I, 255-261- Translation by Edward Burton, in the Apostolic Fathers, vol. II.
[4] St. Thomas, Summa theologica, 2a 2ae, q. 124, a. 4. "Martyr dicitur, quasi fidei christianae, per quam visibilia pro invisibilibus contemnenda proponuntur."
[5] Freppel, Les Pères apostoliques et leur époque, pp. 397-419.
[6] Magnesians, 8.
[7] Ibidem, 13.
[8] Ibidem, 8. Cf. other citations in Toxeront, History of Dogmas, I, 122 ff.
[9] Smyrnaeans, 1.
[10] Ibidem, 3.
[11] Philadelphians, 6.
[12] Magnesians, 9, 10.
[13] The dogma of Redemption is explicitly taught in several places in St. Ignatius' letters. (Tixeront, op. cit., I, 126.) The Real Presence of the Savior's body in the Eucharist is clearly affirmed in the Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 7.
[14] Magnesians, 2.
[15] Ephesians, 4.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Philadelphians, 4.
[18] Ephesians, 3.
[19] Cf. Batiffol, Primitive Catholicism, p. 139.
[20] Funk, Patres apostolici, I, 152.
[21] Cf. Duchesne, The Churches Separated from Rome, p. 85. Cf. Chapman, "Saint Ignace d'Antioche et l'Eglise romaine," in the Revue bénédictine, 1896, pp. 385 ff. Funk (op. cit., I, 253) says: "There is no doubt but that Ignatius, in this passage, is speaking of the primacy of the Church." This interpretation is admitted by many Protestants, e. g., Lightfoot, Jülicher, and Harnack. Harnack, however, tries to prove that the preeminence of the Church of Rome came solely from the preeminence of its charity. This explanation is refuted by Batiffol, Primitive Catholicism, pp. 141-143. The clearness of St. Ignatius' affirmations in the matter of the essential dogmas of the Catholic Church led Protestants and Rationalists long since to cast suspicions on the authenticity of his letters. Bardenhewer, after relating the history of the disputes on this subject, concludes as follows: "The evidence of their authenticity is simply overwhelming." (Patrology, p. 34)


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