“It is not that I want merely to be called a Christian, but to actually be one. Yes, if I prove to be one, then I can have the name”. — St. Ignatius of Antioch
This is a great week for Saints of the Church as we have three outstanding saints, including an author of one of the Gospels (St. Luke on Friday), a great Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church (St. Teresa of Avila on Tuesday) and a Church Father (St. Ignatius of Antioch, today). Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch, and was a student of St. John the Evangelist. En route to Rome, where according to Christian tradition he met his martyrdom by being fed to wild beasts, he wrote a series of letters which have been preserved as an example of very early Christian theology.
Ignatius is believed to have been born about the year 35 and to have come from Syria. Nothing is known of his early life and career except that he became the third Bishop of Antioch in Syria about the year 69 (only about 40 years after the death of Jesus). He is said to have become bishop after St. Peter and St. Evodius, who died about the year 67. Eusebius in his history of the Church records that Ignatius succeeded Evodius. Tradition also holds that St. Peter appointed Ignatius bishop.
What we do know about Ignatius begins with his final journey from Antioch to Rome, which he made as a prisoner condemned to death for being a Christian during the persecution of the Emperor Trajan. In a letter to the Christians at Rome he wrote: “From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated.”
On this journey he wrote altogether seven letters, which give us important insights into the theology of the Churches in the period immediately following the Apostolic Church period. They speak of ecclesiology (the nature of the Church), the sacraments (which were still developing) and the role of the bishops (whose role was also being developed). Four of these letters were written at Smyrna, where he had been received with great honour by Polycarp and many other Christians. These letters were addressed to the church communities at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome. At Troas he wrote the remaining three letters to Polycarp and to the church communities at Philadelphia and Smyrna.
The letters reveal and affirm strongly Ignatius’ devotion to Christ and his belief in the Divinity and Resurrection from the dead. They also urge unity in the communities in and through the celebration of the Eucharist and its chosen presider, the local bishop. Ignatius speaks of the Church at Rome as being founded by Peter and Paul and hence deserving of special reverence. He calls himself both a disciple and a ‘bearer of God’ (theophoros), so convinced was he of Christ’s presence in him and whom he longed to meet after his death.
In Rome he was sentenced to die in the Colosseum. The Roman authorities hoped to make an example of him and thus discourage Christianity from spreading. Instead, his journey to Rome gave him the opportunity to meet with and instruct Christians along the way through his letters to the local churches and to Polycarp.
Describing himself as the “wheat of Christ”, he was thrown to the lions in the Roman Colosseum and died almost at once. This happened between the years 107-110.
His letters, originally in Greek, were soon translated into Latin and other Eastern languages.
Along with Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius is one of the chief Apostolic Fathers, early Christian authors who reportedly knew the apostles personally.
He is also responsible for the first known use of the Greek word katholikos (καθολικός), meaning “universal”, to describe the Church.
His most famous saying is contained in the letter he wrote to the Church at Rome “I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ”.