St. Ignatius of Antioch was perhaps only one generation removed from the Apostles. Some enthusiastically claim he was a disciple of St. John the Apostle.
Others a bit more soberly understand him to be a pupil of St. Polycarp, who was in turn an immediate student of St. John. Undeniably then St. Ignatius was an able witness to early and authentic church life and, most happily, a prolific writer to the churches of Asia Minor preserving for posterity an accurate record of first generation Christianity. St. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in Syria and therefore a successor to St. Peter who left that city for Rome. Antioch was no Middle Eastern backwater. It was a vibrant center of Christianity, a claim never made for Jerusalem. When St. Ignatius wrote his many letters, he represented an established and effective Christianity with a fundamental structure that the Catholic Church down through the ages would happily augment and untiringly defend. St. Ignatius, in fact, was the first writer to designate the community of Christian believers collectively as “Catholic,” a title both appropriate and enduring.
Catholics living 1,900 years after St. Ignatius was transported to Rome to brave a martyr's death should take heart from the clear and exact description he gives of church order in the first Christian century. This bishop of Antioch writes, “Let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no church. He who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience.”
Just imagine. Within one generation of Christ himself, toward the latter end of the sanctified Apostolic Age, the church framework known today as Holy Orders was up and running. Bishop, priest and deacon were not organizational factors thought up during the Dark Ages to maintain a community ravaged by barbarians. Nor were the episcopacy, presbytery, and diaconate instituted during the Middle Ages to reflect the various estates of society ascendant in the secular world. No indeed. The hierarchical nature of the church is the will of Christ himself. As the Scriptures testify elsewhere and as St. Ignatius insists again, “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God.”
A rather distinctive portion of the New Testament's epistles is the Letter to the Hebrews. This canonical letter is almost unique among the New Testament epistles in its unrelenting priestly imagery. Modern commentators see this letter as written fairly early in Christian history to strengthen Jewish Christians who were being harassed in the Holy Land and who might themselves be growing weary of the demands of the Christian life. The sacred author encourages his readers to reflect on Christ’s unique and eternal priesthood which accomplished fully the forgiveness of sins which the Old Testament promised and the sacrifices of the old temple foreshadowed: “Not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” Weary Christian readers should consider Christ's unfailing ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and his perpetual intercession there on their behalf. Thus Christ in Hebrews is appreciated specifically as a “high priest,” sacrificing his own “blood,” effectively enabling all who would follow him “to worship the living God.” Christ is therefore the unique and eternal “mediator of a new covenant,” a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” and the model for all redemptive activity within the church. The thought of Christ on high as an eternal priest interceding for the faithful is re-enforced by the exercise of the church’s priesthood here on earth.
Christ by his divine and human natures is uniquely equipped to be an intercessor, a mediator, a high priest, and therefore his followers are appropriately formed into a priestly people. Just as the universal church is a priestly community for the world, interceding for all of mankind, so those in Holy Orders - bishops, priests and deacons - form a sacramental priesthood, interceding on behalf of their brothers and sisters after the example of Christ. The ordered, priestly nature of the church, at all levels, continues the priesthood of Jesus Christ realized on the cross and continuing into eternity.