On October 17th, the Catholic Church celebrates one of the earliest Church Fathers: St. Ignatius of Antioch. He succeeded St. Peter as bishop of Antioch and he died a martyr in the Coliseum in Rome. On his way to Rome he wrote letters to several churches.
Tradition has it that he knew not only the Apostles but the Blessed Virgin herself. Some of their correspondences are still extant. Indeed, St. Ignatius was not only privileged to fellowship in good company, but he was also spiritually and morally formed by good company. The best company! The Blessed Virgin and the Apostles.
With that said, we should pay close attention to the manner in which he exercised Christian love and how such love was manifested in his pastoral practices. How did he counsel bishops, priests and deacons to approach obstinate sinners- some of whom were public figures. Mind you, obstinate sinners, by definition, are those who show not the slightest intention or good will in repenting from serious sin.
The Church has many in her ranks today. Many public figures- who call themselves Catholic -not only engage in serious sin but promote it. Even more troubling is that many of these self-styled Catholics approach the altar with impunity...without the slightest public rebuke.
But the great Saint, Martyr, and Father of the Church approaches this matter markedly different from many Catholics of the 21st century (clergy and laity). Indeed, his idea of Christian love had two sides. What we see today only has one. In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:
“But some most worthless persons are in the habit of carrying about the name [of Jesus Christ] in wicked guile, while yet they practice things unworthy of God, and hold opinions contrary to the doctrine of Christ, to their own destruction, and that of those who give credit them, whom you must avoid as ye would wild beast.”
Now, to our modern ears, these are crude and rough-edged words of admonition. Perhaps, today, we could use more refined words. But as a rule, the principle of avoiding obstinate sinners who give scandal has been maintained by the Church up until the 1960's. A sinner- especially one of high public profile -mired in serious sin or grave scandal was, more often than not, prevented from entering the sanctuary until a whole hearted repentance was ascertained by the Church. Ensuring repentance was aimed at recovering the salvation of the obstinate sinner. In the meantime, it also preserved the salvation of those who would be scandalized by their sins.
You see, those of us in the Church have forgotten that love has two sides: Love's first instinct is to welcome. But there is another side to love that spouses and parents know well. And that is when a wrong has been done (let's say on the part of the spouse who commits an act of infidelity or a child who does a serious wrong) the spouse or parent, for the good of the marriage or the good of the child, is duty-bound to say, "Stop right there and go no further! Something is seriously wrong. And it needs to be resolved before things return to normal." The unfaithful spouse not only has to show contrition for his infidelity, but in order for the marriage to survive, he must also stop cheating. The same applies to the child. The son or the daughter who does wrong must make amends before he or she is relieved of parental discipline.
Now, for some reason, in recent years, this concept has been lost in translation as we proceed from the home to the Church. But this wayward spouse-child analogy is entirely appropriate for the point I am trying to make. To repeat, there are two sides to love: The immediate instinct of love is to reach out, to welcome, and to embrace. But as we know, the God of the bible, spouses and parents are willing to activate that other side of love when circumstances require it.
The other side of love, so seldom seen today, can juggle opposites. It is able to make the distinction between the sin and the sinner. And because the Christian is called to love the latter, it must hate the former. Love and hate, in this context, are inseparable. As regards to sin, our Lord uses nothing but aggressive language in our obligation to extract it. When speaking of that which occasions sin, he said, "Pluck it out!" "Cut it off!" If that weren't enough, the illustrations he uses in teaching about the consequences of not doing this is even more dramatic and unsettling.
The other side of love is also farsighted. It has the long term interests of the beloved in mind. It is able to foresee that serious sin seriously compromises the welfare of the sinner. As such, it is at least willing and ready to take on a disciplinarian role. It can even be subversive and confrontational when the occasion calls for it. To be sure, the other side of love does not wince nor draw back from anticipated reactions such as anger or even hurt feelings. Why? Because the long term good of the sinner (or loved one) is never lost sight of. After all, short term sacrifices and inconveniences come with long term gains. Every good spouse and parent knows this. But, unfortunately, not every good Catholic bishop, priest, deacon and lay person- who acts on behalf of the Church -knows this quite the same way.
Jesus exercised this side of love quite often. This is why he appeared to be severe and even rude at times. And as you can see, St. Ignatius of Antioch, as one who enjoyed the "good company" of some very exceptional Saints, employed this other side of love in his letter to the Ephesians. Like the Apostles Paul and John, he admonished pastors and laity alike in Ephesus to avoid those men and women who poised themselves as followers of Christ but were not. And he used the strongest words in making his case.
I am afraid that if Catholics who are in leadership positions, or who have a public voice, do not follow the leaders of yesterday, the very ones the Church has held up as models to imitate, then we will not be equal to our mission. These are exceptional times. As such, we need exceptional leaders. If we do not imitate these models of sanctity, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Church will suffer from a severe shortage of men. Not only that, she will be no match for those who unapologetically advance the culture of death.