Pioneers of the Faith

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On October 17 we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. c.107), bishop and martyr.  To read about St. Ignatius and the other Apostolic Fathers is to travel back to the cradle of the Christian faith.  Just think: Ignatius was born around the year 35, just a few years after the death of Christ; even in his maturity, the events of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection were as recent as the Vietnam War and the moon landing are to us.  The realism and immediacy of the Christian story are indeed present in Ignatius’ writing.  He never tires of stressing the reality of Christ (who “was truly born…ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died…also was truly raised from the dead”), and the sacrament of the Eucharist (which he says point-blank “is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ”).  Another prominent theme in Ignatius’ writing is unity—unity of God, unity of Christ, unity of Christ and the Church (“submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ,” he advises), and the unity of the Old and New Testaments; and Ignatius will always be remembered for being the first author to use the phrase “Catholic Church.”  But above all, Ignatius sought union with the Crucified One, and was given the opportunity to achieve this in the most extreme way.  During the persecution of the emperor Trajan, Ignatius was arrested, transported by armored guard to Rome (during which journey he wrote the seven letters to various local churches which are his literary legacy) and given to wild animals in the Roman circus.  By his own account, Ignatius was “God’s wheat,” to be ground to become the “pure bread of Christ.”

As we round out this Year of Faith, why don’t we (re-)acquaint ourselves with the lives and writings of the early Fathers of the Church, our pioneers in faith? There are several reasons, it seems to me, why the Church Fathers are vital and important today.  First, they make fine and refreshing spiritual reading.  If you have trouble with mystical language, if you find it too ethereal or sentimental, then you may enjoy reading the Church Fathers.  There is a simple eloquence and a virile, bracing directness in the way they talk about the faith.  Here is St. Ignatius instructing us on following Christ in his Letter to Polycarp: “Be pleasing to Him whose soldiers you are, and whose pay you receive.  May none of you be found to be a deserter.  Let your Baptism be your armament; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your endurance, your full suit of armor.  Let your works be as your deposited withholdings, so that you may receive the back-pay which has accrued to you.  Be long-suffering with one another, just as God is with you.” The Christian disciple as soldier: there is a metaphor to send you out braced to meet the new day!

The second reason the Fathers are relevant is (as I mentioned earlier with reference to St. Ignatius) the sense of immediacy they convey about the historical facts of the faith.  The Faith that Ignatius and his brethren died for was a real thing, not an abstract theory like Greek philosophy or an archetypal fable like Greek myths; Ignatius and his brethren were palpably aware of this fact because the events in question had happened just a generation or two earlier.  Getting this primitive perspective on the faith can refresh our own faith and bring a sense of reality and immediacy, two millennia after the advent of Christ.

Which brings us to the last (and hardly least) reason why the Fathers are relevant today: in many respects their historical situation parallels our own.  As Christians, the early Fathers lived as cultural outsiders.  Their faith was not easy or comfortable; it came at great cost.  They all had constantly to define their faith to those hostile to it, to defend and fight for it; many of them died for it.  Unlike the saints of later ages, they did not enjoy the convenience of living in a culture that was already formed by the Gospel.  Imagine what fortitude it took for the early Fathers to explain the reason why they worshiped as the Lord of Heaven and Earth a poor Jew who was crucified by the Romans; to confront a rationalistic philosophical culture with the supra-rational mystery of the Resurrection of the body; and not least, to declare before an elite devoted to power and pleasure that Jesus, not the Emperor, was Lord.  Indeed, now that persecution of Christians has been revived in the Middle East and elsewhere, the martyr Fathers emerge as a powerful witness to religious freedom.

At various points in her history, the Church has been led back to the wellspring of the Church Fathers for renewal and purification.  Perhaps the time has come once again.  At present, the culture no longer bears the Christian message; it needs to be taught the basics once again.  Pope Benedict XVI invited us into a project of returning to the basics of our Faith to re-evangelize the culture, a project that Pope Francis seems intent to continue.  So why not check out some good books on the Fathers and start the journey? Their lives, writings, and heroic witness can strengthen our faith and our ability to live and defend it.

A great place to start your exploration of the Church Fathers is Pope Benedict XVI’s two-volume series The Fathers, which consists of biographical sketches of dozens of these figures.  Then you can move on to William A. Jurgens two-volume The Faith of the Early Fathers for generous samples of the Fathers’ actual writing.

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