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St. Ignatius of Antioch

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We Catholics in the Western world are the most educated people in two millenia of Christianity. Our minds have become filled with knowledge about everything from atomic energy to zoology. Our intellects have been sharpened to a razor’s edge, in analyzing this knowledge with a subtlety that only years of academic training could achieve.

All the while, however, most educated Catholics have not kept pace by growing in the faith which they verbally profess. It is not too much to say that their grasp of God’s revealed truth is minimal, and their ability to explain the faith or defend it before the bar of reason is infantile.

One contributing factor to this widespread neglect is the failure to realize that we believe with the mind because faith is the assent of the intellect to God’s revelation.

No wonder we are seeing such massive defection among so many Catholic intellectuals in Europe and North America.

There is no choice. Either we continue to grow, all through life, in our grasp of the faith we profess, or we shall lose this precious gift that we once happily possessed.

How to grow in our understanding of what we believe? In many ways, but especially by constantly nourishing our faith at the fountain of wisdom available in the great Catholic writers of the Church’s literary history.

The most elementary understanding of the Catholic faith is to know that it has continuity. Certainly the objective deposit of faith as divine revelation was completed by the end of the apostolic age. But already at the beginning of the second century the essentials of faith were understood even as the Church understands them today. There has been development of doctrine, but no break in substantial content over the centuries.

This is admirably seen in the writings of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome in 107 A.D. On the way to martyrdom, he wrote seven letters to seven different dioceses, including the Church of Rome, which he said, “presides in the chief place” and “in love, maintaining the law of Christ.”

Reading St. Ignatius, our faith is strengthened. He tells us many things that are being questioned or denied in nominally Catholic circles today.

That Jesus Christ has a proveable history, since “He is really of the line of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God by the will and power of God; was really born of a virgin and baptized by John… And He suffered really, as He also really raised Himself from the dead.”

That Christianity is no mere philosophy but a divinely organized way of life, built around the successors of the Apostles, the bishops of each diocese. Consequently “all those that belong to God and Jesus Christ are the very ones that side with the bishop…. Do not be deceived, my brethren, if a man runs after a schismatic, he will not enter the Kingdom of God; if a man chooses to be a dissenter, he severs all connection with the Passion.”

That the Church founded by Christ is the Catholic Church. Ignatius was the first to use the expression, “Catholic Church.” She is everywhere and meant for everyone who wants to be a true follower of Christ. No one has improved on Ignatius’ statement that, “just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

That bishops are to be pillars of unity in their dioceses. Writing to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, Ignatius told him, “Men that seem worthy of confidence, yet teach strange doctrines, must not upset you. Stand firm, like an anvil under the hammer. It is like a great athlete to take blows and yet win.

There is a realism about St. Ignatius that is sobering to the modern mind. No less than St. Peter, whom he succeeded as Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius never made the mistake of confusing authentic Christian charity with misplaced compassion that condoned the rejection of revealed Christian doctrine in faith and morals.

He is refreshing to read in our own age of martyrdom, to remind us of the price we too must pay if we wish to remain loyal to Jesus Christ.

He pleaded with the Roman Christians not to use whatever influence they had with the government to obtain his pardon. Ignatius longed to consummate his union with Jesus by sharing in His Passion. “Suffer me,” he begged, “to be eaten by the beasts through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ … I long for the beasts that are prepared for me.…Let there come on me fire and cross and struggles with wild beasts…mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body…may I but attain to Jesus Christ. I am learning in my bonds to give up all desires, for my Desire has been crucified, and there is no fire or love for earthly things; but only water living and saying to me from within, ‘Come to the Father.’”

We need to read this kind of language today to keep us firm in our allegiance to the One who gave us the one true faith.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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