St. Ignatius of Antioch
Born: 30-50 AD in Syria
Died: 98-117 AD in Rome
Feast Day: October 17
Patronage: Church of the Eastern Mediterranean and Church of North Africa
Many people will likely pass by and fail to notice the inscription on the high altar in the Church of San Clemente in Rome that says in Latin: “Here in lies the bodies of Clement, Pope and Ignatius, Bishop and Martyr.” While we are familiar with such contemporary saints as John Paul II, Padre Pio, and Maximilian Kolbe, to name but a few, the names of Clement and Ignatius may not grab our attention at first glance.
When I had the opportunity several years ago to visit San Clemente, my heart began to pound rapidly when I first read the inscription. For contained within this glorious altar where I stood were the bodily remains of two bishops who actually knew the Apostles; they were among the first Christian writers to give us a description of what it was like at the beginning of the Church and what was taught and believed.
Bishops like Ignatius of Antioch were more than just church leaders or even martyrs for the faith. They are a visible link to the Apostolic Church – a sign that our faith is not based on innovations and conformity to any given time or culture. Ours is a faith rooted in the lived reality of the First Christians, a faith that has been passed down through the ages in its entirety, unspoiled and unbroken. This living and immutable faith is what led Pope Pius XII to proclaim: “True Christianity today is not different from primitive Christianity… She remains what she has been since her foundation: Always the same.”
Also known as Theophorus, Ignatius was probably born around 50 AD in Antioch, Syria. However some Church Fathers suggest that Ignatius was none other than the child that Jesus took up in his arms in Mark 9:35. (We shall have to wait till heaven to ask St. Ignatius if this, in fact, was so!)
We know nothing of his early life until he was named the third bishop of Antioch as the successor of Evodius. (Evodius had succeeded St. Peter, when Peter became the first Bishop of Rome.) St. John Chrysostom tells us that Ignatius received his Episcopal ordination from the Apostles and that he was chosen by St. Peter as bishop of Antioch following the death of Bishop Evodius. It is claimed that Ignatius was also among the editors of St. John’s Gospel alongside his brother bishop St. Polycarp, himself the disciple of St. John the Evangelist.
When the Emperor Domitian began to persecute the Christians of Syria, Ignatius stood by his people as a faithful and watchful shepherd. When this time of persecution passed, Ignatius rejoiced that his people no longer suffered but he himself longed to give his life to Christ as a martyr.
His longing to die for Christ was fulfilled when the Emperor Trajan decreed that all Christians were to join their pagan neighbours in offering sacrifices to the Roman gods. Trajan’s recent military conquests had brought the ‘’Pax Romana” to the entire empire and, as such, sacrifices were in order. Those who refused to partake in these sacrifices were considered traitors and sentenced to death.
Ignatius was unwilling to compromise the Church’s belief that sacrifice was to be offered to God alone. Refusing to scandalize his flock, he denounced the Emperor and was arrested. Trajan happened to be in Antioch at the time and sentenced Ignatius to die in the Roman Coliseum, to become food for the wild beasts and a spectacle for the Roman people.
It was during his long sojourn to Rome that Ignatius left us a literary legacy that has helped to shape the foundations of the Catholic Church. He composed seven letters addressed to the Church in Asia Minor in the cities of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, Smyrna and Rome. In addition, there was one letter addressed specifically to Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman said that from the letters, “the whole system of Catholic doctrine may be discovered, at least in outline, not to say in parts filled up, in the course of his seven epistles.”
These letters were more than just the pastoral letters of a bishop to his people. Rather, like the Epistles of St. Paul, they were also filled with doctrine and systematic explanations of the Christian faith. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that among the many doctrines found in his letters include the following:
- The Church was divinely established as a visible body for the salvation of souls and those who separate themselves from the Church cut themselves off from God. (Philadelphians 3)
- The hierarchy of the Church was instituted by Christ. (Introduction to Philadelphians, Ephesians 6)
- The threefold character of the Church’s hierarchy: deacon, presbyter (from which we get the English word priest) and bishop (Magnesians 6)
- The order of the bishop is superior by Divine authority to that of the priesthood. (Magnesians 6, 13; Smyrnaeans 8, Trallians 3)
- The Church is One. (Unity) (Trallians 6, Philadelphians 3, Magnesians 13)
- The Church is Holy. (Smyrnaeans, Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians and Romans)
- The Church is Catholic. (Smyrnaeans 8)
- The infallibility of the Church (Philadelphians 3, Ephesians 16-17)
- The doctrine of the Eucharist (Smyrnaeans 8), in which for the first time the term “Blessed Sacrament” is used. He is also among the first Christian writers to speak of the Eucharist as not a symbolic representation of Christ, but as the “the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.” (Smyrnaeans 6:2-7:1)
- The doctrine of the Incarnation (Ephesians 18) and the supernatural dignity of virginity (He described how it was already being taken as a vow by men and women.) (Polycarp 5)
- The religious character of Marriage (Polycarp 5)
- The primacy of the See of Rome over all other dioceses (Introduction to the Romans 13)
- The denunciation of private judgment in theological matters and the interpretation of scripture (Philadelphians 3)
Considering Ignatius wrote these letters a mere 70-80 years after the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, his work cannot be seen as merely his own personal theological opinions. Rather, they are rooted in the living faith and tradition of the Church, one that Ignatius humbly transmitted on to others as it had been passed on to him.
While many of the Protestant reformers like John Calvin dismissed these letters as later innovations by the Roman Church to assert its authority, early Church writers like St. Polycarp and St. Irenaeus note that the letters of St. Ignatius were believed by the faithful to have been written by him. They were widely read in the first two centuries of the Church’s life and continue to be an important witness to the faith of the Apostolic Church.
Alongside the letters’ doctrinal and pastoral matters, Ignatius continually asked his Christians brothers and sisters to pray for him so that he could fulfill his burning desire and holy longing to die as a martyr for Christ. He asked that they do nothing to prevent this from happening but rather allow him to complete his discipleship with the shedding of his own blood.
In his letter to the Romans he declared, “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 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.”
The day of his dies natalis came when he arrived in Rome and was promptly brought to the Flavian Amphitheatre (The Coliseum) and died a martyr for Christ. His bodily remains were brought back to Antioch by deacon Philo of Cilicia and remained in his Episcopal see until 637 when they were transferred to Rome to be placed next to the relics of St. Clement in the Church of San Clemente.
St. Ignatius of Antioch has sometimes been called a “true athlete” for Christ, a man who laboured ceaselessly as a bishop and disciple of the apostles to serve the Church. And when the time came to give his life for Christ, he did it willingly. He was a man rooted in the Scripture and doctrine of Christ while also having a spirit of gentleness and loving concern for his people. He stands as a perpetual witness and example for all popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons and the lay faithful of the Church to remain true to the faith of the First Christians. We must resist the temptation to compromise and conform to the spirit of the age, for it only sows confusion and scandal among the faithful, leading to both division and indifference to Christ and His Bride, the Church.
Fr. Nathan Siray
All historical information for this article comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on St. Ignatius of Antioch