Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Ignatius, Patriarch of Constantinople, Confessor

Article

The origin of the Greek schism, commenced by the usurper Photius, renders the life of this holy prelate an interesting part of the history of the Church. His birth was most illustrious; for his mother Procopia was daughter to the emperor Nicephorus, and his father Michael, surnamed Rangabè, was at first curopolates, or master of the household to the emperor; and on the death of his father-in-law, Nicephorus, who was slain by the Bulcarians, was himself raised to the imperial throne. His piety and mildness promised the greatest happiness both to the Church and State; but this was a blessing of which the sins of the people rendered them unworthy. Leo the Armenian, the impious and barbarous general of the army, revolting, the good emperor, to avert the calamity of a civil war, resigned to him the diadem after a reign of only one year and nine months. He had then two sons living, and two daughters, with whom and his wife he retired into the isle of the Princesses, where they all embraced a monastic state. Theophilactus, the elder son, took the name of Eustratus; and the younger, who is the saint who is here spoken of, changed his former name, Nicetas, into that of Ignatius: he was at that time fourteen years of age. The father was called in religion Athanasius, and survived thirty-two years—to 845. The new emperor, to secure to himself the dignity which he had got by injustice and treachery, parted all his family, banishing them into several islands, and keeping them under a strict guard; and the two sons he made eunuchs, that they might be rendered incapable of raising issue to their family. During the reigns of this Leo, of Michael Balbus, or the Stammerer, and Theophilus, they enjoyed a sweet tranquillity, which they consecrated with great fidelity to the exercises of devotion and penance; in which, by their fervour and love, calm resignation to all the appointments of heaven, and by the unction of divine grace, they found more solid pleasure than a court could afford; and by curbing the activity of their desires, and by the regulation of their passions enjoyed an interior peace which the whole world could not take from them. Ignatius, indeed, underwent a most severe trial, being placed in a monastery which was governed by a furious Iconoclast abbot, from whom he had daily much to suffer: but this very circumstance became to him a spur to watchfulness, and a continual exercise of patience and other Christian virtues, by which he learned daily to die more perfectly to himself. For it is not the tranquillity of monastic solitude, nor a distance from the busy scenes of the world, but the mastery over a man’s domestic passions, and the government of his own heart which is the source of that peace of mind which invites the Holy Ghost into a soul, and is the greatest blessing on this side heaven. So conspicuous was the virtue of our saint that, upon the death of his persecutor, he was unanimously chosen abbot. The prudence and meekness, zeal and charity with which he governed this house, and instructed and walked before his brethren in the paths of evangelical perfection, gained him universal love and veneration: and he founded three new monasteries in three little islands, and one called Saint Michael’s, on the continent. In 842 the empress Theodora, by the death of her husband, Theophilus, became regent for her son Michael III. a minor, restored holy images, expelled John the Iconoclast, patriarch of Constantinople, and raised Saint Methodius to that dignity. After his death, in 846, Saint Ignatius, who then led a monastic life in the islands of Hiatres and Terebinthus, which he had peopled with monks, was dragged out of his secure harbour into the stormy ocean of the world, and made patriarch.

His spirit of mortification, his humility, charity, intrepidity, zeal, and other virtues shone forth in this public station with bright lustre; but the generous liberty which he used in opposing vice, and reprimanding public offenders, drew on him severe persecutions, the ordinary portion of the elect. Bardas Cæsar, brother to the empress, had a great share in the government, for which his great abilities would have qualified him if the corruption of his heart had not rendered him unfit to be a member of civil society, much more to be intrusted with the care of the republic, and the protection of the Church and people. For eloquence, he was superior to most of his contemporaries: he was well versed in all profane literature, and a great lover and promoter of learning; but withal false, crafty, cruel, and so scandalously debauched in his morals, that he put away his lawful wife, and incestuously took his own daughter-in-law to his bed, with whom he had fallen desperately in love. The patriarch could not bear such enormous scandals, and tenderly exhorted this hardened sinner to have pity on his own soul. But the miserable man was so far from giving ear to his charitable admonitions, as impudently to present himself to receive the holy communion in the great church on the feast of the Epiphany. The patriarch refused to admit him to the holy table, and declared him excommunicated. Bardas, stung with resentment, threatened to stab him; but the prelate remained firm, and set before his eyes the divine judgments. Bardas took an opportunity to seek revenge. The young emperor being of a depraved heart, suffered himself to be carried headlong down the precipice of vice; so that it was not hard for the wicked uncle, by flattering his passions, to gain an ascendant over him. Bardas, who for some time had made it his whole study to ruin the pastor of his soul, set himself first to remove his mother, who was the protectress of Saint Ignatius, and moreover stood in his way, and often checked his ambitious and wicked designs. He therefore persuaded his nephew Michael, that it being time for him now to reign by himself, he ought to send away his mother and his sisters into some monastery. The unnatural and ungrateful son relished this advice, that he might be more at liberty to follow his vicious inclinations, sent for the patriarch, and ordered him to cut off the hair of his mother and three sisters as a mark of their engaging in a monastic life. His refusal to commit such an unjust and irreligious act of violence was represented by Bardas in the most odious colours, and the holy patriarch was charged with fomenting rebellions. Michael, in the mean time, caused his mother and sisters to be shaved, and shut up in a monastery: and on the 23d of November, by his order, Saint Ignatius, when he had been patriarch eleven years, was driven from his see by Bardas, and banished to the isle of Terebinthus, where one of his monasteries stood. All means were used to extort from him a resignation of his dignity; but he refused by such an act to deliver up his flock to wolves: nor could his constancy be moved by artifices, persuasions, buffets, chains or dungeons. At last, however, Bardas declared Photius, the eunuch, patriarch, without so much as the formality of an election. This extraordinary man was of high birth, nephew to the patriarch Tarasius, and nearly related to the emperor and Bardas Cæsar. He was a prodigy of genius and learning, being well skilled in all the profane arts, and not altogether unacquainted with ecclesiastical matters, in which also, by application after his promotion, he acquired great knowledge. So passionately fond was he of books, that he often spent whole nights at his studies. But he was a mere layman, and had two considerable employments at court, being Protospatharius and Protosecretis, that is, master of the horse and chief secretary to the emperor. His great qualifications were debased by a consummate depravity of soul; for he was the most cunning and deceitful of men; and always ready to sacrifice every thing to an unbounded ambition. He was also a schismatic, and adhered to Gregory Abestas, bishop of Syracuse, in Sicily, who had raised a faction against Saint Ignatius, from the time of his promotion to the patriarchate. The saint had endeavoured to reclaim this prelate, sparing neither words nor good turns, but in vain; so that at length in a council, in 854, he condemned and deposed him for his crimes. Photius continued to protect him, and being nominated patriarch by Bardas, was ordained bishop in six days; on the first, he was made a monk: on the second, reader: on the third, subdeacon; on the fourth, deacon; on the fifth, priest: and on the sixth, which was Christmas-day, patriarch. This was done in the year 858.

The election of Photius having been made by Bardas alone, notoriously against the canons, no bishop could be prevailed upon to ordain him till he had gained some of them by promising to renounce the schism, which he had abetted, to embrace the communion of Ignatius, to acknowledge him as lawful patriarch, to honour him as his father, and to do nothing without his consent. Yet in less than two months after his ordination, in contempt of his oaths, he persecuted most outrageously all the clergy that adhered to Ignatius, and caused several to be scourged or otherwise tormented. In order to destroy Ignatius, he persuaded Bardas, and, through his means, the emperor, to commence an information against him as having secretly conspired against the state. Commissioners were sent to the isle of Terebinthus, and the saint’s servants put to the question to compel them to accuse their master; but nothing could be extorted from them. However, the saint was conveyed to the island Hieria, where a goat-house was his prison; thence he was removed to Prometa, a suburb near Constantinople, where two of his teeth were knocked out by a blow given him by a captain of the guards, and he was confined in a narrow dungeon with his feet put in the stocks, and fastened to two iron bars. Several bishops of the province of Constantinople assembled in the church of peace in that city, and excommunicated Photius. On the other side, Photius, supported by Bardas, in a council, pronounced a sentence of deposition and excommunication against Ignatius, who, in August, 859, with many of his adherents, was put on board a vessel, loaded with chains, and sent to Mitylene, in the isle of Lesbos. Photius sent messengers with a letter to Pope Nicholas I, in which he signified, that Ignatius had resigned his see by reason of his age and craziness, and had withdrawn into a monastery, where he lived in great esteem with the princes and the people; that himself had been chosen by the metropolitans, and compelled by the emperor to take upon him that dreadful burden, which he hypocritically lamented; but begged the pope to send two legates to ratify these proceedings, and condemn the Iconoclasts. The emperor also sent an embassy, consisting of a patrician and four bishops, on the same errand, with rich presents to the church of Saint Peter. The Pope received no messengers from Ignatius, whose enemies did not suffer him to send any. He therefore answered these letters very cautiously, and sent two legates to Constantinople, Rodoald, bishop of Porto, and Zachary, bishop of Anagnia, with orders to decide in council the questions concerning holy images, according to the definitions of the seventh general council. But as to the affair of Ignatius and Photius, the legates had orders only to take informations and to send them to the pope. In his answer to the emperor, he complains that Ignatius had been deposed without consulting the holy see, and that a layman had been chosen against the canons. In that to Photius he expresses his joy to find his confession of faith orthodox; but takes notice of the irregularities committed in his election. In the mean time Ignatius was brought back from Mitylene to the isle of Terebinthus, about the time that his monasteries with the neighbouring isles were all plundered, and twenty-three of his domestics massacred by a fleet of the Scythian nation, called Rossi or Russians. The pope’s two legates being arrived at Constantinople, Photius and the emperor found means to gain them after they had long resisted.

A synod, therefore, was held at Constantinople in 861, in which the legates prevaricating and exceeding their power and commission, Saint Ignatius was unjustly deposed, with much harsh and tyrannical usage, seventy-two false witnesses having been heard against him, who alleged that his election had not been canonical. After this, Photius caused the saint to be shut up in the sepulchre of Constantine Copronymus, which was in the same church where the council had been held: here the prisoner was most cruelly beaten and tormented, kept for a fortnight always standing, and a whole week without meat or sleep. In the weak condition to which he was reduced, Theodorus, one of the three ruffians that tormented him, in order to compel him to sign his own condemnation, and the resignation of his see, took his hand by force, and made him sign a cross upon a paper which he held. This he carried to Photius, who caused an act of his renunciation to be written over it. This paper Photius delivered to the emperor, who thereupon sent an order that Ignatius should be released, and suffered to retire to the palace of Posa, his mother’s house, where he enjoyed a little respite, and had an opportunity of drawing up a petition to the pope. It was signed by ten metropolitans, fifteen bishops, and an infinite number of priests and monks. Theognostus, a monk archimandrite of Rome, and abbot at Constantinople, was the bearer, and informed the pope of all that had passed.

Photius not thinking himself yet secure, advised the emperor to cause Ignatius to read his condemnation in the Ambo or pulpit of the church of the apostles; then to have his eyes pulled out, and his hand cut off. On Whit-Sunday Ignatius saw his house on a sudden encompassed with soldiers; and made his escape only by putting on the poor secular clothes of a slave, and carrying a great pole upon his shoulders, to which two baskets were hung. In this disguise he went out in the night-time, being taken by the guards for a porter. He walked weeping, and lived a long time, sometimes in one island, sometimes in another; often changing his habitation, and concealing himself in caves, mountains, and desert places, where he subsisted on alms, being reduced to beg, though he was patriarch, and the son of an emperor. Photius and the emperor had caused strict search to be every where made for him, and the Drongarius, or admiral of the fleet, was sent with six light vessels in quest of him. All the islands in the Archipelago, and all the coasts were narrowly searched: Ignatius was often met by the soldiers, but was so disguised as never to be known. The Drongarius had orders to kill him upon the spot wherever he should be found. A terrible earthquake, which shook Constantinople for forty days together, terrified the citizens, who cried out that it was a just punishment for the persecution Ignatius suffered. The emperor and Bardas were both alarmed, and both swore publicly, and caused it to be proclaimed that no harm should be done to Ignatius, and that he might with safety return to his own monastery; which he did. The pope, after the return of his legates, and after he had received the acts of the pretended council, and the informations that were sent him, expressed great affliction for the prevarication of his legates, and disowned what they had done, declaring he gave them no commission for the deposition of Ignatius, or for the promotion of Photius. In his answers to the emperor and Photius he strongly shows that Ignatius was the only rightful patriarch, and that Photius’s election was every way irregular, nor does he address him otherwise than as a layman. In that to the emperor he says: “We have in our hands your letters, as well to Leo our predecessor as to us, whereby you gave testimony to the virtue of Ignatius, and the regularity of his ordination: and now you allege his having usurped the see by the secular power,” etc. At the same time the pope sent a third letter, directed to all the faithful in the East, wherein he condemned the prevarication of his legates who had acted against his orders; and, directing his words to the three patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, to the metropolitans and bishops, he says: “We enjoin and order you, by the apostolical authority, to have the same sentiments with us in regard to Ignatius and Photius; and to publish this letter in your diocesses, that it may be known to all men.” Photius, than whom there never was a more daring impostor, suppressed the letter he had received, and forged another in the name of the pope, as if of a later date than the rest, in which he intimates the pope to be in his interest, and to charge Ignatius with having imposed upon him. Eustratus, who pretended to have brought this letter from Rome, was convicted of the cheat, and condemned by Bardas himself to be severely scourged, notwithstanding the pressing solicitations of Photius, who, for his recompence procured him an honourable and lucrative employment. It was afterwards affirmed that Photius had contrived this whole cheat. All this while he connived at the impiety of the emperor, who ridiculed the sacred ceremonies of religion, and mimicked them with the companions of his parties of debauchery. Photius assiduously made his court to the emperor, and ate at his table with these sacrilegious jesters. One of these buffoons called Theophilus, used to act the part of the patriarch, and others that of the rest of the clergy, in a ludicrous manner, which was condemned in the eighth general council. The emperor rallied Photius for his want of religion, saying: “Theophilus (the buffoon) is my patriarch, Photius is Cæsar’s patriarch, and Ignatius is the patriarch of the Christians.” The two wicked princes were soon after cut off like Baltassar. Bardas was put to death by the emperor for conspiring against his life, in 866.

Photius having in vain courted the pope to draw him to his side, resolved at length to be revenged of him, and having exasperated the impious emperor against him, with his concurrence, held a council at Constantinople in the same year, 866, in which he presumed to pronounce sentence of deposition and excommunication against Pope Nicholas: this was the first origin of the Greek schism. Photius had only twenty-one bishops who joined him in this council; but forged false acts as if it had been œcumenical, adding false subscriptions, as of deputies from the other three eastern patriarchs, and of about a thousand bishops. What much exasperated Photius was, that the Bulgarians having been lately converted to the faith, the legates which Pope Nicholas had sent among them, rejected the chrism which Photius had consecrated and sent thither, and they made a new chrism to confirm as well the great men as the people of that nation. Photius, therefore, resolved to keep no longer any measures with the pope; but held this pretended synod against him; and when it was over, drew up a circular letter which he sent to the other Oriental patriarchs and chief bishops, in which he trumped up a general charge against the Latin church. But he soon after lost both his protector and his usurped dignity. The emperor, who had slain his uncle Bardas on the 29th of April, in 866, immediately adopted and declared master of the offices, Basil the Macedonian, a soldier of fortune who had a great share in the death of Bardas. And as Michael wanted both application and capacity for business, and could not do without another to govern for him, he soon after associated this Basil with him in the empire, and had him crowned in the church of Saint Sophia on the 26th of May. But seeking soon after to depose him again, he was murdered by his guards while he was drunk, in September, 867.

The emperor Basil no sooner saw himself at liberty and master of affairs, but the very next day he banished Photius into the isle of Scepe, and honourably restored Saint Ignatius; who was conducted with great pomp to the imperial city, and reinstated in the patriarchal chair on the 3rd of November in 867, after a banishment of nine years. If pride makes men haughty and insolent, or fond of themselves and of the esteem of others in prosperity, it leaves them pusillanimous, abject, and fawning in adversity. But he who is master of himself and his passions, is the same in all vicissitudes: his heart, under the steady influence of reason and virtue, is neither darkened with clouds, nor agitated by violent storms, but preserves itself in an even state of tranquillity by a noble firmness which it derives from an interior sentiment of religion. Such was the character of this saint, who appeared not less magnanimous in the greatest disgraces, than humble amidst honours and applause. Having recovered his dignity, he solicited the emperor and the pope that a general council might be called. This was held at Constantinople in the church of Saint Sophia, in 869, and is called the eighth. The legates of Pope Adrian II. who had succeeded Nicholas in 867, presided. The council held by Photius was here condemned: that schismatic himself, after a long hearing, was excommunicated, and those who had adhered to him were, upon confessing their fault, admitted to penance. Nicetas relates, that among Photius’s archives, which the emperor had seized, were found in sacks sealed with lead, two books in purple covers, adorned with gold and silver, the inside being curiously written in fair characters, with marks that they might appear ancient when they should be found by posterity. In the one, were contained forged acts of a pretended council against Ignatius (which never was held), in the other was a synodal letter against Pope Nicholas, “both full of outrageous slanders and invectives. Photius was banished by the emperor; but, eight years after this, by drawing a pedigree of that prince from Tiridates, king of Armenia, and certain old Thracian heroes, he pleased his vanity, and prevailed to be allowed to return to Constantinople, and to abide in his palace of Magnaurus. Saint Ignatius applied himself to his pastoral functions with so much prudence, charity, zeal, and vigilance, as showed his sanctity and experience were much improved by his sufferings. He died on the 23rd of October, in the year 878, being near fourscore years old. His body, inclosed in a wooden coffin, was carried to the church of Saint Sophia, where the usual prayers were offered for his soul. It was then removed to Saint Menna’s, where two women possessed by devils were delivered in the presence of these relics. They were deposited in the church of Saint Michael, which he had built near the Bosphorus, not far from the city. Both Latins and Greeks keep his festival on the day of his death. See his life written by the elegant Nicetas David, bishop of Paphlagonia, afterwards of Constantinople, who knew him; also Zoneras, Cedrenus, the eighth tome of the councils.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Ignatius, Patriarch of Constantinople, Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 13 July 2013. Web. 19 October 2017. <>