October 17th, Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch
On December 20th, in the Roman Martyrology, we read: “At Rome, the passion of St. Ignatius, Bishop and Martyr; he was the third after St. Peter the Apostle to rule the Church of Antioch, and in the persecution of Trajan was condemned to the beasts and sent to Rome in fetters. There he was afflicted and tortured by the most cruel torments in the very presence of the Senate. Finally he was cast to the lions and, ground by their teeth, became a sacrifice for Christ.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch has rightly been called the “Doctor of Unity” – both insofar as he brilliantly set forth the doctrine of the unity of the person of Christ in two natures, and as he defended the unity of the Christian people within the hierarchy of the Church. As the unity of the single person of Christ cannot be properly defended without admitting the diversity of his two natures, so too (we say by analogy) the unity of the Church cannot be maintained without the diversity of hierarchical vocations within the mystical body.
Today, in honor of our saintly Bishop and Martyr, we consider the role of the bishops of the Church – specifically, we do well to call to mind the special relation between the priests and the bishops. [This is particularly important in our days, when many so-called “conservative” priests rebel against the authority of their bishops.]
Let all be subject to the bishop, and he to Christ
St. Ignatius is most well-known for a series of letters which he wrote as he was being led from Antioch to Rome in chains for his martyrdom. These letters are extremely important to our understanding of the development of doctrine in the early Church. The letters show a very high understanding of the Eucharist both as the very body of our Savior and also as the true sacrifice, of the unity of the person of Christ who is both God and man, of the nature of martyrdom, and of the redemptive value of suffering (among many other points).
In this little article, we propose to consider St. Ignatius’ understanding of the hierarchy of the Church which he so clearly laid out in the three degrees of Holy Order: Bishop, Priest, Deacon.
“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. […] Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. […] Whatsoever [the bishop] shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Smyrnaeans; Ch 8)
“Let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Smyrnaeans; Ch 9)
From these words, we recognize the great emphasis which St. Ignatius places on the authority of the bishop and the obligation of all (including both the laity and the clergy) to be subjected to the bishop. “Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” How strong and direct are our Saint’s words! How wrong are those who reject their bishop’s authority and strive forward in pride to do their own will!
What is worse, many will not hesitate even to publicly criticize the bishop (even some priests will do this from time to time). Such persons put their souls in a state of great peril:
“It is becoming, therefore, that ye also should be obedient to your bishop, and contradict him in nothing; for it is a fearful thing to contradict any such person. For no one does [by such conduct] deceive him that is visible, but does [in reality] seek to mock Him that is invisible, who, however, cannot be mocked by any one. And every such act has respect not to man, but to God.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Magnesians; Ch 3)
“Some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not stedfastly gathered together according to the commandment.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Magnesians; Ch 4)
Who can dare to judge his bishop? Whither comes such authority? No, there is none in the Church who is over the bishop (excepting, of course the Pope), therefore whosoever judges and condemns his bishop judges against Christ and against the Father. To reject the authority of the bishop is to reject the authority of Christ – persons who do such are “not possessed of a good conscience.”
Wherever the bishop is, there is the people of God; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
The bishop and the Church
St. Ignatius by no means intends to imply that the people are to be crushed by the authority of the bishop – not at all! Christ is the head of the Church, but this implies no disadvantage to the Church as being subject to her divine Head; just so, although all in the Church must be subject to the bishops, they suffer no disadvantage by this subjection (indeed, it is a great blessing!).
St. Paul reminds us of the proper relation of the people to the bishops when he corrects the Corinthians for their sectarianism: Let no man therefore glory in men. For all things are yours, whether it be Paul, or Apollo, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; for all are yours; And you are Christ's; and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21-23) The subjection which is implied by the authority of the Church’s hierarchy does not in any way diminish the dignity of the Christian faithful; for, as the Holy Father himself is the “servant of the servants of God”, so too the bishop is the servant shepherd of his flock.
The bishop, then, does not exercise his authority for personal gain, but for the benefit of the people. Specifically, it is the hierarchical structuring of the Church which ensures and protects the unity of Christ’s flock. Scarcely had the Protestants rejected the Church’s hierarchy, when they found themselves not only breaking from unity with Christ and his Church, but divided even amongst themselves. Whosoever rejects his bishop will soon be the house divided against itself, he shall not stand long.
Contemplating the unity of the Church which is founded in the diversity of her hierarchy, St. Ignatius is compelled to use metaphorical (and nearly poetic) language:
“Wherefore it is fitting that ye also should run together in accordance with the will of the bishop who by God's appointment rules over you. Which thing ye indeed of yourselves do, being instructed by the Spirit. For your justly-renowned presbytery, being worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Thus, being joined together in concord and harmonious love, of which Jesus Christ is the Captain and Guardian, do ye, man by man, become but one choir; so that, agreeing together in concord, and obtaining a perfect unity with God, ye may indeed be one in harmonious feeling with God the Father, and His beloved Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Ephesians; Ch 4)
How much is at stake in the relation of the bishop and the Church! Indeed, we must all pray daily for our bishops – may the Lord give them wisdom and fortitude to govern the flock which our Savior has entrusted to their care!
What if the bishop is a bad bishop?
Now, I am sure that many are thinking at this point: “Well and good, Father; but what if the bishop is bad? What if he is not a holy man? What if he doesn’t govern his flock well? Are we still obliged to follow him?” I suppose there is a great temptation to predicate obedience on our estimation of our superiors, but then it is no longer true obedience – it is only self-will.
Notice, St. Ignatius does not predicate the hierarchy of the Church on the virtues of the bishop but rather on the will and plan of God.
“It is therefore necessary that, as ye indeed do, so without the bishop ye should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all [...] let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church [...] he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Trallians; Chs 2-3, 7)
It should be clear: We are never bound to obey our bishop in committing a direct sin (in fact, we are bond to disobey him). However, we ought to consider whether the bishop (whom we judge as a poor bishop) is truly commanding something which is contrary to the divine will or not. Is the command in fact a direct sin, or is there room for diversity of opinion? Perhaps the bishop does not really command a sin, but only commands what is less-good.
For example: If a bishop were to forbid pro-life activity in his diocese, this would seem to many to be a poor decision (and, speaking hypothetically, it would seem so also to me). However, even a command of this magnitude is not clearly directly implying sin – it is no direct sin not to pray in front of an abortion clinic. It is not sinful to cease to be involved in explicit pro-life activity; therefore, if a bishop were to command either priests or lay faithful to avoid such activity (speaking hypothetically and in theory), it would seem that such persons would be obliged to comply – at least, this seems to be what St. Ignatius would say. Now, let us set aside this particular hypothetical example.
Perhaps a bishop is a poor bishop, perhaps he does make poor decisions (and maybe he even sins his failing to guide his flock well) – what good does the disobedience of priest and people bring? If the bishop is a sinner, how does it help for priests and people to sin through disobedience?
Indeed, perhaps some bishops are not as holy as they should be – but how much worse it is when the faithful (or the priests) accuse their bishops publicly, and even to the secular media!
If a bishop fails to guide his flock well, and if he does not repent of this sin, perhaps he will be condemned to hell for all eternity. If those subjected to the bishop (and especially the priests) rebel against their poor bishop who is failing in his duties but who has not commanded any direct sins, and if they do not repent of this sin of disobedience, perhaps they will be condemned to hell for all eternity together with their bishop.
And what good has come then? What use was the venting of frustration against their bishop?
Whenever we think of our bishop, and especially whenever those of us who are priests think of our bishop who is over us, we would do well to say, “My poor bishop!” Yes, my poor bishop – he is “poor” because he must govern over one as rebellious and wretched as myself! If only I might make some small reparation to him by overlooking his little visible faults (they are much less then my own hidden sins), and pray for him every day.
Why do priests and people waste their breath in contradicting and criticizing their bishops? How much greater good (and change) could come if that energy were spent in prayer before the Sacrament! How many bishops would have been converted, if only certain groups of “conservative” priests and laity over the past forty or more years would have prayed with devotion rather than running their lips! [And I challenge the conservatives because I have not much hope left for the liberals, their prayers are of little value so long as they stray from the Faith.]
A word from Pope Benedict XVI
“Overall, it is possible to grasp in the Letters of Ignatius a sort of constant and fruitful dialectic between two characteristic aspects of Christian life: on the one hand, the hierarchical structure of the Ecclesial Community, and on the other, the fundamental unity that binds all the faithful in Christ.
“Consequently, their roles cannot be opposed to one another. On the contrary, the insistence on communion among believers and of believers with their Pastors was constantly reformulated in eloquent images and analogies: the harp, strings, intonation, the concert, the symphony. The special responsibility of Bishops, priests and deacons in building the community is clear.
“As can be seen, Ignatius is truly the ‘Doctor of Unity’: unity of God and unity of Christ (despite the various heresies gaining ground which separated the human and the divine in Christ), unity of the Church, unity of the faithful in ‘faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred’ (Smyrnaeans, 6: 1).
“Ultimately, Ignatius’ realism invites the faithful of yesterday and today, invites us all, to make a gradual synthesis between configuration to Christ (union with him, life in him) and dedication to his Church (unity with the Bishop, generous service to the community and to the world).” (Wednesday Audience of 14 March 2007)
And the final word goes to our Saint: “Love one another with an undivided heart. Let my spirit be sanctified by yours, not only now, but also when I shall attain to God. [...] In [Jesus Christ] may you be found unblemished.” (St. Ignatius: Letter to the Trallians, 13)
St. Ignatius, Pray for us!