Ignatius and Polybius

According to St. Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop occupies a seat of governance no less authoritative than that of God Himself.

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[Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]

Of the seven letters of Ignatius written in the last weeks of his life, the shortest on record is the one sent to the Christians living in Tralles, a town less than twenty miles from Magnesia. The bishop of Tralles has come to Smyrna to greet the would-be martyr. But for all its brevity, there is no shortage of wit in it. 

Having dispatched a couple of letters already (to Ephesus and Magnesia), Ignatius has honed his craft sufficiently to know exactly how to say what needed saying. And what was it that precisely needed saying? Was there a message here that Ignatius was able to distill in less than a thousand words? 

Suppose we begin with the bishop, a man by the name of Polybius, for whom Ignatius evinces the greatest esteem. For it is he who, however unwittingly, will prove to be the pivotal figure in what follows: 

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By God’s will and that of Jesus Christ, he came to me in Smyrna, and so heartily congratulated me on being a prisoner for Jesus Christ that in him I saw your whole congregation. I welcomed, then, your godly good will, which reached me by him, and I gave thanks that I found you, as I heard, to be following God.

The launch pad in place, Ignatius is ready for liftoff. And the payload for the flight? The Office of Unity on which everything in the life of the Church depends. Where do we find that point of unity? In the person of the bishop, who occupies a seat of governance no less authoritative than that of God Himself. It is, you see, in the very accent of Jesus Christ that he, the bishop, speaks—and must thereupon be listened to.  

Not, heaven knows, because he lusts after power, and so adoring is he of its exercise that nothing save more power matters in the least to him. There have surely been bishops of that sort, but they are usurpers and their recompense will not be from God. 

So, it is not self-aggrandizement that should possess such men but the pure love of God and neighbor, pursuant to a common Faith which it is their privilege and responsibility to uphold. Without the office of unity embodied and sustained by the bishop, there can be no holiness of life among the people whom God has charged the bishop to defend and protect. And they, of course, must submit in turn to him. “For when you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ,” says Ignatius,

you are (as I see it) living not in a merely human fashion but Jesus Christ’s way, who for our sakes suffered death that you might believe in his death and so escape dying yourselves. It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery as to the apostles of Jesus Christ. He is our Hope, and if we live in union with him now, we shall gain eternal life.

We must remember that there is no road to eternal life that does not first go through Christ, who is the only way to the Father; and He is no roundabout way. But Christ does not wish to save us apart from His Bride, who is the Church, she who is both Mater et Magistra, and in whose very Office of Unity we find the bishop, whose principal and defining work is, once again, to defend the Faith and those who depend on that sacred deposit of Faith in order to get safely home to Heaven.  

There is more, too, of which Ignatius is not shy in reminding us. We must also, he adds, 

show the deacons respect. They represent Jesus Christ, just as the bishop has the role of the Father, and the presbyters are like God’s council and an apostolic band. You cannot have a church without these. I am sure that you agree with me.  

And they do, of course, owing to so strong and faithful a bishop. “In your bishop,” says Ignatius, speaking confidingly to the holy people of Tralles, “I received the very model of your love, and I have him with me. His very bearing is a great lesson, while his gentleness is most forceful. I imagine even the godless respect him.”

It is never possible, the saints tell us, to undertake anything of great or lasting importance in the spiritual life by human means alone. “The merely human,” warns Chesterton, “will become inhuman.” Does the Church imagine that she can defend the sacred deposit, and the souls who depend upon it for spiritual sustenance, by appeals to the temporal power? Not even the best will in the world can rescue a world lost in idolatry and sin. Besides which, as Gregory of Nyssa so shrewdly noted, “If all things were within our grasp, the higher power would not be beyond us.”

The standard of reform, of the renewal of the human heart, therefore, can never be determined by those who stand in most need of it. To think otherwise is to reenact what Cardinal Robert Sarah has rightly called “the mystery of Judas,” named after the one who betrayed Christ because He would not, all at once, bring the Kingdom of God to planet earth.  “First sanctity,” he tells us, “then structures. If your bishop is not a saint, then become one yourself.”

How fortunate for the Church that Ignatius was a saint. Only he did not know it, which is one sure sign of his sanctity. “God has granted me many an inspiration,” he concedes—constrained by the truth to speak the truth—

but I keep my limits, lest boasting should be my undoing. For what I need most at this point is to be on my guard and not heed flatterers. Those who tell me…they are my scourge. To be sure, I am ever so eager to be a martyr, but I do not know if I deserve to be. Many people have no notion of my impetuous ambition. Yet it is all the more a struggle for me. What I need is gentleness by which the prince of this world is overthrown.

What he needs, to be sure, is the example of such gentleness as he found in the mild and holy bishop who has come to be with him amid the fearfulness of the ordeal pressing upon him on all sides—along with the love and the prayers of the good people who make up “the holy church at Tralles in Asia.” 

By God’s mercy I need your love if I am going to deserve the fate I long for, and not prove a castaway.

The letter then closes on a note of great poignance and simplicity, in which Ignatius appeals both to God and to the Church for that solace and strength he will need to face the trials yet to come:

My life is given for you, not only now but especially when I shall get to God. I am still in danger. But the Father is faithful: he will answer my prayer and yours because of Jesus Christ. Under his influence may you prove to be spotless.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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