The city of Antioch was in many ways the mother of the Church in the Roman world. It lay just inland from the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea in modern-day Turkey in the region of Hatay near the current border between Turkey and Syria. The city became a great metropolis following the conquests of Alexander that opened up the highway of trade from India and the east to the Mediterranean. Antioch, during Roman times, was in a highly favorable location at the western terminus of the Silk Road and took full advantage of this to profit in the exchange of goods between distant Asia and the rest of the Roman Empire. During the apostolic age Antioch was the third city of the Empire after Rome itself and Alexandria. It was here that the Prince of the Apostles seems first to have moved to after leaving Jerusalem and he became the city’s first bishop before moving on to Rome. Paul and Barnabas also spent much time preaching and winning converts in the city. St. Luke, companion of St. Paul and author both of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles was a native of Antioch. And it was in Antioch that the name of Christian was first applied to believers in Jesus Christ and members of the Church.
After the age of the Apostles had ended the church in Antioch continued to supply the Church with great teachers and martyrs. St. Ignatius of Antioch‘s, who himself was a hearer of the apostles, letters written on the way to his martyrdom in Rome provide us with a fascinating glimpse of the Church during the decades following the death of the apostles, and give ample evidence of the primacy of the church of Rome even at that early date. St. Ignatius’ Feast Day is October 17.
Following Ignatius the city continued to supply the Church with bishops and martyrs, among them Babylas who suffered martyrdom under the reign of Decius during the middle of the third century. The church of Antioch expanded its reach to become the leading church of the East, and second only in primacy to Rome, by the ascension of Constantine to power during the early fourth century. The church there unfortunately was also a place of discord and a birthplace for heresy. Paul of Samosata in the third century was bishop of Antioch and denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. And the ideas of Arius, while first publicly proclaimed in Alexandria, have their roots in Antioch. The Arian heresy which also denied the divinity of Jesus Christ but were far more successful than Paul’s troubled the Church for three centuries following the Edict of Milan.
Antioch continued to form a part of the Pentarchy, the five great Sees (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria) of Roman times but fell into decline after the rise of Constantinople in the fourth century. Constantinople became master of the East religiously, politically, and economically and Antioch suffered both from the Christological disputes and the resulting schisms in the Church, and from the depredations of the Persian Empire during the epoch of wars between Rome and Persia that stretched from the third to the seventh centuries during which Antioch and/or its hinterland were often battlegrounds. The Muslims conquered Antioch in 638 AD and the city was now on the front lines of the almost constant warring between the Constantinople and the Caliphate and its importance in the Christian world rapidly diminished. The Orthodox Church was unable regularly to supply a patriarch for the city as its Muslim political masters showed a preference for their Monophysite rivals, hostile as they were to Constantinople. The Byzantines briefly reconquered the city in 969 before losing it again to the Turks during the following century. Antioch was taken by the Crusaders in 1098 and they established the Latin Patriarchate of Antioch which endured for more than a century and a half before the Turkish reconquest of the city and the martyrdom of its last resident Latin Patriarch in 1268. The city of Antioch has more or less disappeared from the map since that time and the site is now occupied by the Turkish city of Antakya. The Pope continued to appoint Latin Patriarchs of Antioch, none of whom were able to take residence in the city after 1268, until the Patriarchate was abolished in 1964. There are now a whole host of Patriarchs of Antioch, five at last count; none of whom actually reside in Antakya.
Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for this ancient and once great apostolic See of the Church: for its liberty and its salvation, and the restoration of its ancient position as a pillar of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Muslim peoples. We should also remember the currently suffering land of Syria which forms the patrimony of this ancient See in our prayers, if we can find the heart.
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