“Accept me as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God, for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas…” —The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
One of the most galling examples of corruption in the Catholic hierarchy in recent decades has been the persistent and almost ubiquitous practice of giving Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion “rights” and are therefore guilty of formal cooperation in the killing of the unborn. On November 17, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a muted, indirect, and highly abstract rejection of this shameful abuse entitled “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” It remains to be seen if the episcopate will have the courage to fulfill it.
The American bishops have a long history of failure to overcome in this regard: decades of compromise and capitulation in the face of powerful men who openly live in the scandal of mortal sin but seek to affirm their Catholic identities through sacrilegious public reception of the Eucharist. This odious practice allows them to use the Church as a shield from moral scandal while facilitating their public misbehavior. In exchange, the bishops who permit the abuse can retain their often-cozy relationship with the political class in their jurisdictions.
The prophetic duty to rebuke politicians living in public sin was attested to in the Gospels when John the Baptist scolded Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife. And he was martyred for it (Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:14–29). His example of courage in condemning immoral potentates was preceded by various Old Testament prophets and was followed by numerous Catholic saints, including St. Peter Damian who, in the 11th century, chased down the Holy Roman Emperor to publicly deny him the right to an obviously bogus annulment.
The bishop who perhaps best exemplifies the courage required to defend the Blessed Sacrament against the abuse of powerful men is St. Ignatius of Constantinople, patriarch of the Byzantine capital from 847 to 877. His inspiring example, which led him to suffer terrible torments in middle age, might help the more timid prelates of our day to find their own courage in the face of much milder forms of persecution. It may truly be said that St. Ignatius merits the title “Defender of the Eucharist.”
Ignatius was a holy monk who began life as a son and possible successor of the Byzantine emperor Michael I. But he had been castrated and sent off to a monastery when his father was deposed by a rival in one of the many brutal coups d’état that marked the transition of Byzantine dynasties. He embraced the monastic life and obtained a universal reputation for sanctity, rising to the rank of abbot and firmly resisting the heresy of iconoclasm imposed by his father’s successor. When he was nominated as Patriarch of Constantinople by Theodora, the pious and orthodox regent of the new child-emperor Michael III, none objected to the choice of the saintly Ignatius.
After a decade as patriarch under the protection of Theodora, Ignatius found himself in the difficult position of defending the integrity of the Church against the aggression of Theodora’s cynical and impious brother Bardas, who wished to be called “Caesar” and was seeking to take over the regency for his own nefarious purposes.
When Bardas proposed that Theodora and her daughter be sent away by force to a convent, Ignatius refused, noting that the monastic life must be embraced voluntarily. Bardas’ immoral public behavior then became an issue when he abandoned his wife and entered into an openly incestuous union with his daughter-in-law. As a regular communicant, he was now endangering the public integrity of the Eucharist and creating a scandalous example for all.
As the Emperor’s sole regent, Bardas was the most powerful man in the Byzantine Empire. Unlike the politicians of the modern West, who can rarely do more than rave at those who oppose their impiety, Bardas had the ability to make his enemies suffer. But it appears that Ignatius was a bishop who loved Christ more than his personal comfort and his ecclesiastical career. He would not deny the words he uttered every year in the Divine Liturgy of Holy Thursday:
Accept me as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God; for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief, I confess to you: Remember me, O Lord, when you shall come into your kingdom!
The idea contained in the phrase, “I will not reveal your mystery to Your enemies,” which today is part of almost every Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, dates back to the earliest days of the Church, when the pagan Roman Empire was brutally persecuting the Christian faith. The danger of the “mystery” or sacrament of the consecrated host falling into the hands of the Church’s enemies was a daily reality, one that Christians would have been willing to die to prevent. They therefore kept the secret of the Eucharistic sacrifice, requiring catechumens to leave the Divine Liturgy before the consecration of the sacred host.
How could Ignatius, Patriarch of Constantinople, forget these words in the face of a public sinner, a would-be tyrant who was openly living in adultery and incest? How could he give Christ “a kiss, as did Judas” and turn him over to an enemy? He could not, and he did not. After his private rebukes failed to bring about Bardas’ repentance, Ignatius publicly refused him Holy Communion on the Feast of the Epiphany in 858, during the Divine Liturgy in the church of Hagia Sophia, in front of the empire and the whole world.
Thus commenced one of the great dramas of the Church’s history. According to Ignatius’ hagiographer Niketas of Paphlagonia, Bardas flew into a rage on the spot and threatened to run Ignatius through with his sword. However, Ignatius held his ground, responding that God had the power to turn his weapon back upon him, and Bardas withdrew. Ignatius had won round one, but round two would bring him terrible suffering.
Humiliated and enraged, Bardas turned the whole of the Byzantine state apparatus against Ignatius. After first securing the banishment of Theodora and her daughter to a convent, he accused Ignatius of fomenting a revolt against the Emperor Michael. In late 858, the young emperor had Ignatius arrested and banished to a small island in the Mediterranean, then to various other prisons, including a horse stable.
During his confinement, agents of Bardas repeatedly slapped Ignatius, to the point of breaking his teeth, in an attempt to induce him to renounce the see of Constantinople. He steadfastly refused. He was nonetheless “replaced” by the emperor with a layman, Photius, who was rushed through the sacramental grades of order and made a bishop in just six days, consecrated by an excommunicated bishop, and absurdly presented as the new patriarch.
The injustice against Ignatius led to a great outcry from the eastern clergy. Pope Nicholas I repeatedly condemned Photius and rejected his claim to the see of the Byzantine capital, but the usurper remained in his place, supported by the Emperor Michael and “Caesar” Bardas. In the meantime, Michael’s regime openly mocked the Catholic religion, publicly ridiculing the Divine Liturgy and the clergy while Photius conveniently offered no resistance. Instead, he attacked the papacy and the Latin Church over the use of the Filioque in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, solidifying a schism that lasted until Photius’ deposition.
After almost a decade of banishment, Ignatius was allowed to return to the see of Constantinople by Michael’s Co-Emperor, Basil I, who killed Michael to make himself sole ruler in 867. Ignatius peacefully continued in the office of patriarch until his death in 877. Government intervention in Church affairs was roundly condemned, and those who had mocked the Church in Ignatius’ absence were required to do penance. Centuries later, Constantinople IV began to be recognized as the Eighth Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church.
Today, both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox recognize Ignatius as a saint. His feast day is October 23, the day of his death and “heavenly birth.” In the face of the sad indifference of modern clergy to the integrity of the Eucharist, Ignatius remains to us a sign of hope from the Church’s past and a powerful intercessor for the integrity of the Sacrament and the deliverance of the Church from the abuses of state power.
We also possess the great pre-communion prayer of the Divine Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil that appears to have been inspired by the rite of Holy Thursday, a faithful reminder of the holiness of the Eucharist and the obligations of those who partake of it. While the historic Latin Rite is under attack by the highest authorities in the Church, this prayer continues to shine as a light from the East, illuminating the dignity of the Blessed Sacrament:
O Lord, I believe and profess that You are truly Christ, the Son of the Living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. Accept me as a partaker of Your mystical supper, O Son of God; for I will not reveal Your mystery to Your enemies, nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief, I confess to you:
Remember me, O Lord, when You shall come into Your kingdom!
Remember me, O Master, when You shall come into Your kingdom!
Remember me, O Holy One, when You shall come into Your kingdom!
May the partaking of Your holy mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgment or condemnation, but for the healing of soul and body.
O Lord, I also believe and profess that this, which I am about to receive,
is truly Your most precious Body, and your life-giving Blood, which, I pray,
make me worthy to receive for the remission of all my sins and for life everlasting. Amen.
O God, be merciful to me a sinner!
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me!
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number.
St. Ignatius of Constantinople, Defender of the Eucharist, pray for us!
The author thanks Gregory DiPippo of New Liturgical Movement for his kind help in clarifying the liturgical matters addressed in this article.
[Image: St. Ignatius of Constantinople/President Joe Biden]