“I am God’s wheat, and I shall be ground by the teeth of beasts, that I may become the pure bread of Christ.”
Today, Oct. 17, the Church remembers a first-century bishop who set a standard for Christian courage in the face of death. St. Ignatius of Antioch, friend of St. Polycarp (who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist), wrote the words quoted above as he was taken from his see in Syria to Rome to suffer martyrdom at the jaws of lions. His epistles to Christian communities along the route may sound a bit fanatical to modern ears. Not simply resigned to his fate but looking forward to it, he expresses an eagerness to become a martyr (from the Greek for “witness”) as he exhorts his followers not to plot his escape. He sees the purpose of his life, and his ministry as a bishop, fulfilled in the sacrifice he will make in the Colosseum before the eyes of all-powerful Rome, whose emperor had launched a vicious persecution of the new and growing religion.
It’s easy to dismiss the story of Ignatius’ death as early Church hagiography and his writings as tinged with the zeal of Christians who looked for the imminent return of the risen Jesus. Some 2,000 years later, what can we learn from such a figure? Much, indeed.
Today there are churches and Christian communities in every corner of the globe; the Gospel has been preached on every continent, to billions of people. Yet we are seeing a slow erosion of the faith in places where it was once the bedrock of society and culture, notably in the United States. In once half-Catholic Connecticut, for example, parishes are being merged and priests are covering a number of churches. Though I was glad to see, this past July, the first parish named for Blessed Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, the sad fact is that all eight Catholic churches in New Haven are now part of that one parish, with only a handful of priests serving the city. You may be seeing a similar consolidation in your own area.
Although we are not being dragged across a continent to be consumed by lions for the viewing pleasure of besotted spectators, we Christians rightly complain about being excluded, censored, or outright persecuted by secular forces in government, law enforcement, the arts, and communications. What do you call it when—under the administration of a self-proclaimed Catholic president—the homes of peaceful prolifers are raided by federal agents at dawn, the police and FBI carting them away from their families to face trumped up charges before biased judges?
St. Ignatius would understand the selfless, lifesaving witness of prolifers, as well as the rabid attitudes and actions of the authorities operating under the color of law. What the saint would not understand is how so many Christians have allowed this to happen by keeping our beliefs to ourselves, not speaking out or spreading the Gospel, and failing to pass on the faith to our children, so that so many churches now look like senior centers. Too many of us have set the scene for today’s malaise of faith; secular forces have sniffed the scent of surrender and attacked with greater gusto than a hungry lion.
We may not soon or ever regain the culture. We may all become enemies of the state simply by going to Mass or publicly confessing the Creed. In truth, persecution is a familiar state of the Church, and the Church often thrives when it is most reviled. Public persecution and martyrdom are common even today. Look at the coopting of the Church in China, the killing of Christians in India, or at any number of Muslim countries where churches are restricted and converting to Christianity is illegal. Religious freedom or toleration is far from the norm throughout the world, even in our so-called enlightened age. Yet if we are true to our forebears in the faith, especially on this feast day of Ignatius of Antioch, we will remember the saying of another early Church writer: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” May we live according to the farewell words of Ignatius: “I would rather die for Christ than rule the whole earth.”