It is providential that we’ve gathered for our semi-annual diaconal convocation on the feast day of the martyr, St. Ignatius of Antioch. Truth to tell, we know little about St. Ignatius’ life except for the letters which he has left us.
What we do know is that Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch in Syria. Around the year 107, a severe persecution of the Church was underway and it resulted in the Ignatius’ arrest and his transport to Rome where he was destined to be torn to pieces by wild beasts in the arena. The persecution of the Church in St. Ignatius’ day calls to our minds the persecution of Christians in Syria and other parts of the Middle East in our times. We ask the intercession of St. Ignatius of Antioch for our suffering sisters & brothers.
As Ignatius made his way to Rome, escorted by Roman soldiers, he sent a letter to Rome in which he spoke of his ardent desire not to be spared but to give his life for Christ, to re-produce in his own flesh the Sacrifice offered in the Eucharist and thus to ‘acknowledge the Son of Man before the angels of God.’ Along the way he was met by Christian delegations that included the local bishop, presbyters, deacons, and the lay faithful. His letters to the Church at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Philadelphia were, in effect, letters of thanks for their prayers and exhortations to keep the faith amid the stress of persecution. It is chiefly through these letters that we know of St. Ignatius.
Affectionate References to Deacons
In those letters there are many references to deacons. In fact, in Ignatius we see the three-fold ministry of Holy Orders fully reflected: bishop, presbyters, and deacons. Ignatius sees these holy orders as faithful to the teaching of Christ and the Apostles and as essential to the good order and fruitful functioning of the Church. I like Ignatius because he urges the local churches to respect and obey their bishops and not to take advantage of their youth and inexperience!
Letters of Ignatius contain many affectionate references to deacons and, on occasion, he addresses them by name, thanking them for their attentiveness to his needs. His letter to the Church at Philadelphia, for example, mentions the Deacon Zotion, with whom Ignatius wished to stay and whose assistance he greatly valued. In his letter to the Church at Ephesus, he refers to Deacon Burrus, whom he calls “…my fellow servant…your deacon by God’s appointment and blessed with every good gift.”
As we consider how warmly St. Ignatius speaks of deacons, I entrust you, the deacons of the Archdiocese and your wives, to his loving intercession, asking at the same time his blessing upon this Convocation.
The Principal Concerns of Ignatius
If, God forbid, any of us would find ourselves on a death march, we would not use our time for “trivial pursuits”. Instead, we would concentrate on what is most essential, on what is most urgent, on what is closest to our hearts. This is the sense I get when I read St. Ignatius in the Office of Readings. Even at 6:00 A.M. he manages to convey to me a sense of urgency and priority. What then were his principal concerns? And do those concerns have relevance for us today?
I would identify three principal concerns in his writings, the first of which is fidelity to “the teaching of the Apostles”. This phrase refers to writings which would form the New Testament as well as what was handed down from them in the Church’s teaching and worship. This teaching is how the various churches cling to Jesus Christ and thus this teaching is what unites the various churches, one to another. He speaks of the Church at Ephesus, for example, as being “of one mind with the Apostles through the power of Jesus Christ.” So his first concern was that teaching, preaching, and all forms of instruction be true to the teaching of Christ, bequeathed to the Apostles in the Holy Spirit, and handed down in the life of the Church from generation to generation. It was for this very teaching that Ignatius was prepared to give his life. It was for this very teaching that Ignatius remains a living witness in our midst. So we should ask him to pray for us who have been charged to preaching the teaching of the Apostles, the living Word of God, in our day, and to be not merely teachers of the Word but its witnesses, whether that Word is ‘welcome or unwelcome’, ‘whether it is in season or out’. Ignatius praised those churches that did not accept “counterfeit doctrine” which he regarded as “bad seed” destined to produce bad fruit. By contrast, it is the robust preaching and witness to the Word that engenders that “righteousness that comes from faith”, of which St. Paul speaks in today’s reading from Romans. Let us ask St. Ignatius’ prayer to accompany our preaching of the Word.
A second concern of his was prayer. Everywhere he went and in every letter that he wrote, he encouraged his fellow Christians to pray, indeed to “pray unceasingly”. He urges them to pray for one another, to pray for him, to pray for their persecutors, and for those who remain unconverted. Yet, for Ignatius the heart of Christian prayer, its source and summit, is the Eucharist. “Make an effort,” he wrote, “to meet more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist and to offer praise.” Ignatius saw the Eucharist as the strength of Christ to overthrow the forces of evil and to bring about among the Lord’s followers ‘that peace the world cannot give’. Recalling how essential prayer and Eucharist were to St. Ignatius let us entrust to him our spiritual lives, that we may grow in holiness, in righteousness, in the depth of our encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ, in union with “Christ the deacon” to whom you have been configured. Let us entrust to him your service at the Eucharistic table and the Sacraments, that its humility, & loving care may lead many into the heart of the Paschal Mystery.
A third concern of St. Ignatius was charity. In his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius reminds his fellow servant of the Church not to neglect widows; “after the Lord,” he wrote, “you are their guardian.” He urges Polycarp to “seek out all by name” – in a manner that reminds us of the injunction of Pope Francis to bring the Gospel to the margins, to seek out those who are in need. Often he commends local churches for their hospitality but reminds them that it is no ordinary hospitality but rather a welcome “enhanced by faith and love through Christ our Savior.” In a word, Ignatius is urging us to practice a charity that evangelizes. This is often how we most effectively acknowledge the Son of Man before others.
It turns out that St. Ignatius of Antioch was fond of deacons and that his principle concerns turned on preaching, worship, and charity. No wonder I said at the outset that it is providential that we are celebrating the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch during our Convocation.
Through the prayers of this great martyr may we bear convincing and loving witness to Christ through preaching, worship, and charity for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
May God bless us and keep us always in His love.