Segue to Sanctity

If the Office of Unity, symbolized by a sitting bishop, is necessary to the maintenance of faith, then holiness of life is the reason for it.

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

If the Office of Unity, symbolized by a sitting bishop, is necessary to the maintenance of faith—such has been the consuming preoccupation of St. Ignatius—holiness of life is the reason for it. And what is holiness? Nothing less than doing God’s will from moment to moment, to the very last breath; an oblation of self so totalizing as to leave nothing left save God and everything else in relation to God.  

And the thing about holiness, of course, is that the moment “it appears on the scene,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar has noted in Razing the Bastions, “anxiety and wrangling fall silent.” How does St. Paul put it? “Have no anxiety about anything,” he advises the Philippians. Fear nothing but God, in other words, for He has overcome the world. 

“Thus,” continues von Balthasar, “one can fight against holiness, one can forbid it a certain external activity, but one cannot refute it.” By all means, then, let the world have its way. Let it slap us around, frog-march us along the road to martyrdom—it matters not a whit in the final scheme of things. Because, in the end, as always, God will have His way. As the poet W.H. Auden so nicely put it, “Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing.”  

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It is holiness alone that, at the end of the day, constitutes the most immediate and compelling sign of the Church’s life, “the best proof that the Church still has something, indeed, everything, to say to the present and the coming time, despite her age and her wisdom of old age.” But only insofar as the Church herself is holy, steeped in sanctity from the first moment of her existence, since otherwise she would be expected to give what she hasn’t got. She must be herself holy in order to generate holiness in others. And so, while the Church herself cannot abrogate so essential an exercise of her authority—that is to say, Unity of Office—without betraying Christ himself, who entrusted His mission to twelve mortal men and their successors, the only reason for it is to raise up saints to give glory to God.  

The principal business of the Church, then, is to produce blessedness among her members. And how in the name of heaven is that going to happen if the Church hasn’t got the authority to absolve sinners of all that stands in the way of their becoming saints? Without the grace of God coursing through the sacraments, of which the Church remains the chief conduit, how are Christians expected to grow in holiness?  

Or, put it this way: for the Church to be Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, she has first of all got to be One. The sequence is not an accidental one, by the way. Because, from the very beginning—an hour or so, say, following the initial Pentecostal blast—she set down her Articles of Faith along precisely those lines. All the great confessional paradigms were predicated in exactly the same way: unity, followed by the other three. “If one asks whether the Office is present in the Creed,” von Balthasar reminds us in A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen, “the answer is: certainly, above all in ‘unam’ which stands before ‘sanctum, catholicam’ and finally ‘apostolicam ecclesiam.’

And unity is not some vague aspirational ideal floating far above the heavens, either. Christ did not come into this world with ideals in His head, intending to enshrine a few of them pursuant to a scheme of redemption totally untethered to the world we take in with our senses. The Church is no mere spiritual affair, lacking material configuration. She is not a species of idealism, for which only those too fastidious for the flesh need apply. “If you do this,” warns Henri de Lubac in The Splendor of the Church, his masterwork of ecclesiology, 

then you are giving a dream the status of an extra-mental entity and trying to separate what God has united. You are not only opening the door to general doctrinal anarchy…you are shutting out all understanding of the eternal purpose which God made in Christ Jesus Our Lord.  

The Church is not a Platonist assembly, as it were, whose ideal appeal is to the most rarefied of souls. “From the very morrow of Christ’s death, a Church was in existence and living, just as Christ had constituted her.” 

Thus, the Church—as represented by Ignatius and countless kindred spirits like his own—is no mere longing of the heart. She is not made of gossamer, nor is she the result of so much woolgathering by the dotty dreamers of our race, never mind the disinterested purity of their pursuit. 

De Lubac continues, 

And if anyone can extract a clear-cut meaning from the terms ‘apostolicity of the spirit’—as opposed to the sheer fact of historic succession—he is welcome to do so. The matter has, in any case, never been viewed thus, from the very first.

And it seems preferable by far to believe St. Irenaeus when he depicts the Apostles as entrusting to bishops the Churches which were entrusted to themselves. If the Church today is not the apostolic Church she is not really carrying on Christ’s mission and is not His Church. 

Not to put too fine a point on the matter, the Office of Unity needs to become concrete; it has simply got to be a thing of flesh and blood, in order both to be seen and heard among all whom Christ wishes to call to Himself. It must be full of existential import, you might say.

Von Balthasar notes, 

The Church could never be “one” if a visible principle of unity were not instituted in her, for we sinners always tend toward separation and sectarianism. And only what is united in this way can be catholic, i.e., all-encompassing, whereas our personal horizon can see and live only a part. Therefore, an objective sanctity must belong to this principle of unity that is the apostolic constitution of the Church—the college of Twelve with Peter as the unifying center—corresponding to its being instituted by Christ and accompanied by him.

The objective holiness inhering in the Church herself, that sheer scaffolding of sanctity upon which our lives depend, exists but for one reason, and that is to enable us, the members of Christ’s Body, to grow in holiness ourselves. The ladders are in place only in order for us to climb, to mount our individual ascent to God.  

And the bottom line? What is the implication here? It could hardly be plainer:

If Christians are to love and seek unity above all else, then they must permit the ecclesial principle, whose office it is to maintain this unity, to carry out its office. An anti-Roman sentiment…is most deeply anti-Catholic. For its purpose is to pursue some imaginary unity by bypassing the office that has been instituted by Christ and is responsible for this unity.

And then, and only then, may true sanctity flourish.

Which brings us once more back to Ignatius—the soon to be martyred bishop of Antioch—whose fourth and final letter sent from Smyrna, destined for the community of Christians living in Rome, the appointed place where it all ends, is full of the holiness of which we’ve been speaking.

We shall have a look at it in the following article in this series.


  • 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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