"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Day 3 of the Church Unity Octave

Today is the third day of the Church Unity Octave. The following is from today's readings in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is from the letter of St. Ignatius (d. 107 AD), bishop of Antioch, to the Ephesians:
"It is right for you to give glory in every way to Jesus Christ who has given glory to you; you must be made holy in all things by being united in perfect obedience, in submission to the bishop and the presbyters. ... I am taking the opportunity to urge you to be united in conformity with the mind of God. For Jesus Christ, our life, without whom we cannot live, is the mind of the Father, just as the bishops, appointed over the whole earth, are in conformity with the mind of Jesus Christ. It is fitting, therefore, that you should be in agreement with the mind of the bishop as in fact you are. Your excellent presbyters, who are a credit to God, are as suited to the bishop as strings to a harp. So in your harmony of mind and heart the song you sing is Jesus Christ. Every one of you should form a choir, so that, in harmony of sound through harmony of hearts, and in unity taking the note from God, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father. If you do this, he will listen to you and see from your good works that you are members of his Son. It is then an advantage to you to live in perfect unity, so that at all times you may share in God. If in a short space of time I have become so close a friend of your bishop -- in a friendship not based on nature but on spiritual grounds - how much more blessed do I judge you to be, for you are as united with him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all things are in harmony through unity. Let no one make any mistake: unless a person is within the sanctuary, he is deprived of God's bread. For if the prayer of one or two has such power, how much more has the prayer of the bishop and the whole Church?"
According to St. Ignatius, how are we made holy in all things? By being united to the bishop in perfect obedience. Is unity optional? No, since God is not double-minded, and we are to be united in conformity with the mind of God, we all are to have the same mind, by conforming to the mind of God. How do we conform to the mind of God? By conforming to the mind of the One whom God sent, i.e. Christ. How do we conform to the mind of Christ? By conforming to the mind of those whom Christ sent, i.e. the Apostles. How do we conform to the mind of the Apostles? By conforming to the mind of those whom the Apostles sent, i.e. the bishops. In this way, in our unity we form a harmony, since each is given a different role, but all are ordered together in a hierarchical unity. In order to be united in perfect harmony, we must all be united in conformity to the mind of the true shepherd (i.e. bishop) of the pasture where we live (i.e. diocese).

How do we determine who is the true shepherd? Do we look at all those who claim to be shepherds, and then pick the one that we like the most, or that (from our point of view), seems to feed us most, or that teaches our own interpretation of Scripture? No. That is consumerism. That is a sure way to fall prey to false teachers, to those who do not "enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climb up some other way" (St. John 10:1). False teachers "climb up some other way" by not coming to the sheep through the Apostles and the succession of bishops appointed by the Apostles. Those not sent to us by the Church are false teachers; they are self-appointed. We determine the true shepherd of our diocese by finding the person whom the Church sent to shepherd our diocese. When we are in union with our true shepherd, and our true shepherd is in union with the Church that sent him, then we possess unity with Christ, as He is in unity with the Father.

Those who reject the authority of bishops, by denying the sacramental distinction between bishops and presbyters, must dismiss St. Ignatius's teachings concerning the distinction between bishops and presbyters as a late first-century accretion, which must not be essential, because otherwise it would be in the New Testament. Their assumption, entirely unjustified by Scripture itself, is that the Scripture contains an exhaustive and explicit ecclesiology for the post-Apostolic era. Even though the Apostle John died about seven years before St. Ignatius wrote his letters, and even though the Apostle John lived and worked in the very area in which were located the churches to which St. Ignatius addressed his letters, those who reject the authority of bishops seemingly must claim that in those seven years, all those churches (and the church at Antioch) fell into the error of believing (1) that bishops had greater authority than presbyters, (2) that bishops were the successors of the Apostles in a way that presbyters were not, (3) that every church should if possible have a bishop, and (4) that this system of church government was Apostolic in origin, and not optional or provincial or conventional. In claiming that the Church fell into such serious error by the end of the first century, such persons are succumbing to the same ecclesial deism present in Mormonism. As Jesus and His Church are inseparable, so faith in Jesus and faith in His Church are inseparable. Ecclesial deism is for this reason not just a lack of faith in the Church, it is a lack of faith in Jesus Himself.

Lord Jesus, please help all who seek to follow you to see what are the fundamental points that divide us, so that by your grace we may overcome the divisions that separate us, and live in perfect harmony with each other on earth, as you live in perfect harmony with the Father in Heaven. Help us to recognize as secondary, differences that are in fact dependent on more fundamental points. Give us all an urgent desire to be united as one flock, with one faith, one baptism, under the one chief shepherd you have appointed (St. John 21:15-17).

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