A BRIEF SUMMARY OF BENEDICT’S TALK
ON “IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH”
Given March 14, 2007
The book Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine is a collection of speeches given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI about the Church Fathers, the immediate successors of the Apostles. The second chapter of Church Fathers contains Benedict’s talk on Ignatius of Antioch.
St. Ignatius served as the third Bishop of Antioch from 70 to 107. At the time, there were three Church centers that exercised a sort of primacy over the faithful, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria, with Rome being the foremost of the three. Ignatius was therefore the Bishop over one of three important primacies.
He was the first writer to refer to the Church as “catholic” or “universal.” Not surprisingly then, Benedict’s talk on St. Ignatius focuses on the theme of unity. Benedict calls Ignatius the “Doctor of Unity.” According to Benedict, “Ignatius often used to repeat that God is unity and that in God alone is unity found in its pure and original state.” God exists in Three Persons but is “One” in absolute unity. Thus for Ignatius unity “to be brought about on this earth by Christians is no more than an imitation as close as possible to the divine archetype.”
St. Ignatius’s writings provide instructions to the early Church that were intended to promote this unity that he describes as an imperfect imitation of God. St. Ignatius, although writing in early in Christian history, nevertheless addresses the Church hierarchy and how the faithful and the ecclesiastical hierarchy are all bound together in one body. Benedict provides an example by quoting from Ignatius’s letter to Bishop Polycarp:
In Ignatius’s writings Bishops, Priests and deacons have a special responsibility of charity and unity. The primacy that the Church of Rome exercised in the early Christian community was therefore a primacy of love.
St. Ignatius, as the Bishop of Antioch, an important primacy in its own right, wanted to set an example for the rest of his community and strengthen the morale and unity of the Christian community by showing that he was eager to face martyrdom. The portion of St. Ignatius’s writings that Benedict quotes above suggests that St. Ignatius believed that his martyrdom would strengthen the unity of the Christian faithful. “I offer my life for those that are submissive to the Bishop, and to the presbyters and to the deacons . . . .” St. Ignatius knew that pagan Rome would tempt the Christian community to Apostasy by rewarding those who did turn their back on Christian principles and threatening, even with death, those that did not. He also knew that the example of a few or even one Apostate would threaten the unity of the Christian community. His admonition “[l]et none of you be found a deserter” were not just words to the early Christians, warning them to resist the temptation of Apostasy. Rather, they were an exhortation to resistance that he wanted to prove by example. “Thus, Ignatius implores the Christians of Rome not to prevent his martyrdom since he is impatient ‘to attain to Jesus Christ.’”
St. Ignatius was martyred in the second century. As Benedict points out, he was “thrown to fierce wild animals in the Flavian Amphitheater” and so went to his eternal reward.
I offer my life for those who are submissive to the Bishop, to the presbyters and to the deacons, and may I along with them obtain my portion in God! Labor together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together as the stewards and associates and servants of God. Please him under whom you fight and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your Baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply.