Pope Benedict XVI once reflected, during a Wednesday audience, on the significance of unity in the Church for St. Ignatius of Antioch, a first-century bishop in present-day Turkey. It's a reflection well worth pursuing again, now, when unity in the Church appears ever more fragile and elusive.

"For Ignatius," he taught, "unity was first and foremost a prerogative of God, who, since he exists as Three Persons, is One in absolute unity."
Ignatius often used to repeat that God is unity and that in God alone is unity found in its pure and original state. Unity to be brought about on this earth by Christians is no more than an imitation as close as possible to the divine archetype.
As believers in this unified, personal Godhead, unity among Christians bore an especially important weight. Ignatius's letter to the Ephesians offers a beautiful metaphor and spiritual image of Christian unity—and ecclesial unity, in particular:
It is fitting that you should concur with the will of your Bishop, which you also do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the Bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore, in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, you become a choir, that being harmonious in love and taking up the song of God in unison you may with one voice sing to the Father... 
Yet, though given a very poetic depiction, Christian unity wasn't something only to be conceived of as aspirational. Ignatius uses stronger, more practical language in a letter to the Smyrnaeans: "Let no man do anything connected with Church without the Bishop." And subsequently with Polycarp:
I offer my life for those who are submissive to the Bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may I along with them obtain my portion in God! Labour together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together as the stewards and associates and servants of God. Please him under whom you fight, and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your Baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply. 
This conception of ecclesial unity is generally unfamiliar today—bishops and priests laboring, striving, running, suffering, even sleeping and waking together, "as the stewards and associates and servants of God."

For Benedict, Ignatius presented "a sort of constant and fruitful dialectic between two characteristic aspects of Christian life: on the one hand, the hierarchical structure of the Ecclesial Community, and on the other, the fundamental unity that binds all the faithful in Christ."
Consequently, their roles cannot be opposed to one another. On the contrary, the insistence on communion among believers and of believers with their Pastors was constantly reformulated in eloquent images and analogies: the harp, strings, intonation, the concert, the symphony. The special responsibility of Bishops, priests and deacons in building the community is clear. 
Doubtless, we still have a great need for—and should demand—such apostolic successors, who are willing to take on their "special responsibility" to build up the community of believers. But even as we do, we must do our part to "become a choir, that being harmonious in love and taking up the song of God in unison...may with one voice sing to the Father."

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.