The Early Christians saw the Unity of the Church as a sign of the unity of Christ’s divine and human natures, along with the unity of the Trinity. This idea was noted in the Didache and St. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, and most famously in St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch noted: “As the Lord was united to the Father and did nothing without Him… so neither should you do anything without the bishop and priests… Let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, and nothing is more excellent than He. Come together, then, as into one temple of God, to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with one, and has gone to one.”
In the minds of all the Church Fathers, the Eucharist was the sacrament of Christian unity; both as a symbol and as something that creates unity. The ancient liturgy of the Didache mentions this: “As the broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, and gathered together became one, so may Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.”
The Eucharist was a gathering of God’s family, presided over by the bishop and later by his priests whom the faithful called their ‘Fathers’. The Office of Bishop was established in the New Testament, and is spoken of as a type of Fatherhood. St. Ignatius would write: “Be obedient to your bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in His human nature was subject to the Father and as the Apostles were to Christ and the Father. In this way there will be union of body and spirit.” The bishop, as father, unified the Church.
The Church’s great Father on earth, however, was the bishop of Rome who from the early days was called Papa (today translated “Pope”) who was the successor to St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. All ancient traditions note that Peter was martyred in Rome; and nowhere else. One of the oldest surviving Christian texts, aside from the Bible, is St. Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians where obedience to the Pope’s decision is expected and commanded in a controversy in a Greek church far away.
The early Church Fathers all showed such deference to the Bishop of Rome: Papa. St. Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom in Rome in the early 100s sent instructions to all the churches; except when he addressed the Church in Rome; where he showed deference. By the end of the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, notes: “that tradition derived from the Apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul… which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority – that is, the faithful everywhere inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by faithful men everywhere.”
And although the early Popes were confident of their authority, they also knew that, like their Master, they were really servants. In fact most of the early Popes followed their Master in death as well as in life. Giving their lives as martyrs for their sheep, they were Good Shepherds to the end.
And so.... did YOU know importance of the Unity of the Church to the Fathers?
Next week we will begin meeting them…
(Information obtained from “The Fathers of the Church” by Mike Aquilina)
Ashley and Susan
Two women asking the world to not just hope, but to Hope in Love.