[Editor's Note: This is the first in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]
The amphitheater, once consecrated to triumphs, entertainments, and the impious worship of the pagan gods, is now dedicated to the sufferings of the martyrs purified from impious superstitions.
—Pope John Paul II, 2000, The Colosseum
When I first arrived in Rome back in the mid 1980s, accompanied by a wife and two small children, we lived for a time just outside the city walls, along the subway tracks that would take me each day to the University of St. Thomas, the Angelicum, where I was doing doctoral studies in Sacred Theology. During those early-morning commutes into the historic center, there was always the same spectacle waiting to be seen—this immense, looming structure standing ever before my eyes as I left the subway station to begin the steep climb up to the university.
I never tired of looking at it or thinking about it. What did it mean? What possible relevance did this huge pile of stone and cement have in a world so vastly different from the one where it had first been seen, begun and completed less than a century following the birth of Christ? Here was the largest amphitheater in the world, after all, and every morning it would catch my eye, riveting my attention like nothing I’d ever seen before.
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Once you’ve seen it, you can never put it out of your head. Why is that? There is nothing particularly beautiful about it, unlike so many obviously lovely things to admire in Rome; and, of course, there is no roof on it. As someone once wryly said about those ancient Roman architects, that having begun like giants, they could hardly be expected to finish like jewelers.
In any case, the lure of the Colosseum was never a matter of aesthetics. It was not the beauty of the thing that moves one to stand and stare. Yes, it was huge and imposing, possessed of an undeniable grandeur, certainly. But at the end of the day was it anything more than an ancient ruin, of which there are so many examples already, amid the plastic and the neon of post-modern Rome?
No, it was something else altogether that proved so fixating. Had it something to do with faith, I wonder—that Catholic and Apostolic faith I’d come all the way to Rome to study? To immerse myself in the soil of a religion whose roots reach very deep down, stretching far back to Rome and beyond? “Religion is the key to history,” Lord Acton had said. And it is upon the sheer historicity of the Catholic Thing that the truth of the Gospels depends.
Belloc was not wrong when he declaimed, “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe.” Leave it out of the equation and the Civilization of the West makes no sense. If it didn’t happen, if God did not come down among us, and if there were no martyrs to testify to the fact, then it hardly matters what we think, does it? Without the note of “ineradicable positivity,” quoting an expressive phrase from Joseph Ratzinger’s landmark text Introduction to Christianity, then there is no music to be played, no notes to be heard. And so, like the great French theologian, Jean Danielou, I, too, would take my stand, “loving best of all that Church mud-splashed from history.”
Isn’t this, moreover, why we hold in pious memory the most salient fact of all concerning the Colosseum, that here was the setting where countless Christians gave their lives for Christ, often in literally the most excruciating of circumstances? Why be fascinated by the sight of a ruin if one cannot draw close to those ancient stones fraught with memories that quickened the faith of so many? Ah, if only the stones could speak! If memory, as the poet Pavese reminds us, “is a passion repeated,” then the mere sight of that place, of all those stones now strewn about, may serve to repeat a passion, however distant the source or vicarious the sense, for what it was those men and women endured for the sake of Christ.
Have I anyone in particular in mind here, someone perhaps whose own example has long fired the imagination of the faithful? It has certainly fired mine. And I do. His name is Ignatius, the sainted bishop and martyr of Antioch, who ended his life in the Colosseum in the year A.D. 107. In this precise place where, centuries later, I’d be exiting a subway, he shed his blood for the God-Man, Jesus Christ. And trudging up the hill day after day toward the Angelicum, I resolved to learn all that I could about his life and the lives of others annealed in heroism before the Incarnate God. In this precise place where, centuries later, I’d be exiting a subway, St. Ignatius of Antioch shed his blood for the God-Man, Jesus Christ.Tweet This
It’s all about conversion, isn’t it? And what does it mean to be converted? It means to recall the wonderful description of Fr. Sertillanges, “simply meeting yourself for the purpose of going to the very end of your being.” If that’s what it means, then Ignatius had certainly met himself long before going to the very end of his being. “Conversion means a willingness to see the truth of things and to conform one’s conduct to it.” To whom did Ignatius conform his conduct, indeed the whole configuration of his life, if not to Christ?
He knew where he was going and, more to the point, he knew why he was going there. “When a man loses everything in life except life,” writes Viktor Frankl in his signature work Man’s Search for Meaning, “what will enable him to survive?” The cruelest deprivations of the body cannot constrain the soul so long as a higher horizon beckons it forward. Even Nietzsche understood that. “Those who have a why to live,” he declared, “can bear with almost any how.”
Well, Ignatius had a why. And he’d have been the first to tell you what it was, too. In fact, he did, at copious and vivid length in a series of impassioned letters sent along the way from Antioch to Rome where the beasts hungrily awaited his arrival. What short work they must have made of him that blessed day at the turn of the 2nd century!
So, I’d like to take a look—leisurely, but not too long—at those letters of his, of which there are seven discrete samples. And to see what ideas course through them and why they were so important to Ignatius and to the early Church whose brave champion he had become. Why they ought to be no less important to us as well, from whose example of life we may be edified and by whose exposition of doctrine enriched.
And while our current prospects may appear especially bleak and challenging, they were not so very different for him, either. We’ve much to learn from him, therefore, which is why I’m eager to go back to the beginning when, as von Balthasar would say, the Church found herself seventeen years old, full of the faith and the hope and the love of Christ. “We shall not collect the living and sacred documents of our life (and the history of the Church is our life) as a person would collect stamps or butterflies,” he writes in Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa. “That would be to demonstrate that we are already dead.”
Let us read history, our history, as a living account of what we once were, with the double-edged consciousness that all of this has gone forever and that, in spite of everything, that period of youth and every moment of our lives remain mysteriously present at the wellsprings of our soul in a kind of delectable eternity.