One could say that anyone who has anything interesting to say may be evangelizing for their interests. In the current case, we are going to look at the numerous people who have evangelized for the Roman Catholic Church. Many of these people, by way of their successes, have been proclaimed saints, blesseds and venerables of the Church.
Evangelizing does not only bring to mind the huge crowds listening to St Anthony’s sermons. It is also in the quiet moments when a mother can have a heart to heart talk with her children, or a school teacher who finally gets a religion topic through to her students. All over the world, there are evangelizers teaching the Word of the Lord to hundreds and thousands. This blog will address a variety of different men and women who have successfully created a new generation of Catholics.
Our first evangelizer is St. Ignatius of Antioch. He is not only first in our presentation, but almost first of all the evangelizers, coming right after the Apostles themselves, chronologically. Ignatius (c. 35 – 107/8) was converted to Catholicism as a youth, probably by St. John the Evangelist or one of his disciples. Tradition is that he knew St. John, personally.
He also knew St. Peter and St. Paul. The way he writes reflects the style of Paul, another Hellenistic Jew. Eusebius, the historian of the fourth century, in his “History of the Church”, claimed that St. Peter and St. Paul established the Church in Antioch. Peter was the first bishop there. They knew that church, and Ignatius, and insisted that he succeed Evodius as bishop of Antioch. Evodius died in 67 AD, so that is the date Ignatius would have assumed the episcopacy.
At that point, a bishop would have been equal to the pastor of a large individual church, with associate clergy. There were not many priests that he had to watch over. Times were very difficult, then. Antioch was in the Roman Empire and subject to the whims of its leadership. Between 81 AD and 96 AD, the emperor was Domitian, a man who felt the need to eliminate Christians. The law read: “That no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion.” Bishop Ignatius was ready for the fight; he pulled together his flock by fasting, daily sermons and constant reassurance to his little flock. He gave them hope and reassured the weak. He held them together through the years until Domitian died and the persecutions stopped.
There was a fifteen month let-up in the persecutions until the new emperor, Trajan, sated with his military successes, turned his thoughts to religious conquests as a way to develop universality of the empire. He decreed that the Christians should unite with their pagan neighbors in the worship of the gods. Ignatius, always ready to lay down his life for his Lord, tried to ready his parishioners for the new onslaught. He was called to meet with Trajan, himself, who was visiting Antioch for the season. An early bio of Ignatius claims a conversation between the two, with Ignatius adamantly refusing to worship pagan gods. “You are mistaken when you call gods those who are no better than devils,” he is quoted as saying. “There is but one god, who created heaven and earth and all that in them is: and one Jesus, made Christ, into whose kingdom I earnestly desire to be admitted.” He was also accused of encouraging others to refuse worship, also. Much to the consternation of Trajan, Ignatius claimed a relationship with the only True God, and presented his argument with eloquence and courage. Trajan had him bound and sent to Rome to be killed.
For some reason, Ignatius and his friends, Deacon Philo of Tarsus and Rheus Agathopus, were put on a ship which was scheduled to stop at every port along the way from Antioch, on the Syrian-Turkish border to Rome. At every port, bishops, priests and lay people from any nearby town came down to meet the reknowned bishop. He would preach, encouraging these people. In addition to preaching, he wrote letters and gave them to people to carry to the far churches. We have seven extant, including those to Philadelphia, Smyrna, Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles (all in what is now Turkey) and Rome.
His first stop was Smyrna, where he met with his friend, the young bishop, Polycarp. Ignatius later sent letters of advice to him and asked Polycarp to forward letters for him. Over the fall, Ignatius slowly moved his way to Rome, accompanied by ten serious Roman guards, who had no compunction to be cruel at will. Eventually, they arrived at Rome, on December 20, the last day of the season’s murder games at the Coliseum. He was rushed in and two lions guaranteed him martyrdom within minutes.
What did his letters talk about? Ignatius exhorted the readers to keep in harmony with their bishops and other clergy, especially noting the hierarchy of deacon, presbyter and bishop: He also advised them to assemble often in prayer, to be meek and humble, and to suffer injuries without protest: “Pray without ceasing on behalf of other men…For cannot he that falls rise again?”. He praised them for their zeal against heresy: “But pray unceasingly also for the rest of men, for they offer ground for hoping that they may be converted and win their way to God. Give them an opportunity therefore, of becoming your disciples. Meet their angry outbursts with your own gentleness, their boastfulness with your humility, their revilings with your prayers, their error with your constancy in the faith, their harshness with your meekness; and beware of trying to match their example.” In his letter to the Roman church, he requested that they do nothing to try to release him: “Now I begin to be a disciple… Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment… come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”
In other letters, he spoke of the concept of the Holy Trinity, implying that this was a foregone conclusion: “Be obedient to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was in the flesh to the Father, and the apostles to Christ and to the Father and to the Spirit, so that there may be unity in flesh and in spirit.”
He also discussed the role of the virgin Mary as mother of Jesus. In many letters, he discussed the concept of hierarchy of the church; Rome being primary to Antioch, a bishop is primary to presbyters and consecrated virgins. He accented the fact that we are close to God by virtue of being close to the bishops: “Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church.”
Ignatius presented a very high bar for other evangelists to reach. St. Ignatius, pray for us!
All quotes are taken from Ignatius’ seven letters to the Asian churches as stated in Butler’s “Lives of the Saints”, and www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=3836.