St. Ignatius of Antioch
Teacher of the Faith
If my headline seems a little overkill, then please the read article. This is one of the most important Christian Saints in the History of the Church.
Today is the memorial of St. Ignatius, the third Bishop and Patriarch of Antioch. St. Ignatius is best remembered as a brave shepherd of his flock who suffered martyrdom in Rome around the year 110 AD — but not before writing a series of letters to Christians explaining the faith and encouraging them to persevere.
(Don’t confuse him with St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits.).
St. Ignatius of Antioch is considered one of the Apostolic Fathers. He was an auditor, or a “hearer” – a disciple – of St. John the Evangelist. The Apostolic Fathers are those leaders of the Early Church who had contact with the Apostles.
At the beginning of Christianity, St. Peter established a church at Antioch, becoming its 1st Bishop and Patriarch. The believers at Antioch were a very important group, and their faith was strong. In fact, it was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.
St. Peter went on to Rome, and he appointed a pagan convert, Evodius, to replace him as the 2nd Bishop. After St. Evodius died (probably of natural causes), Ignatius replaced him as the 3rd Bishop and Patriarch. Tradition holds that St. Peter himself appointed Ignatius.
St. Ignatius was also known as Theophorus, which means “God-bearer”; and he certainly was a striking example of the good shepherd that was needed in those days, bearing the love of God to the people of Antioch.
During the early reign of St. Ignatius, Domitian ruled the Roman Empire. Domitian was the first Roman emperor to deify himself while he was alive, calling himself “Lord and God.” He expect public worship from those living in the Empire.
Christians did not submit to the worship Domitian demanded, knowing that there is but one Lord and God, Jesus Christ. Accordingly, Domitian continued the severe persecution of Christians begun under his predecessor, Nero. It was during these persecutions that the Book of the Apocalypse was written by St. John the Evangelist (which we call the Book of Revelation).
St. Ignatius was a powerful bishop who exhorted the Christians not to lose faith; and he was successful and beloved.
After Domitian, Trajan became emperor of the Roman Empire.
It is true that relatively speaking, the plight of Christians improved under Trajan. Christianity remained illegal, but Trajan forbade searches for Christians and did not allow anonymous testimony against them.
However, Trajan did say that any person (Christian) who refused to make public sacrifice to the Roman gods was to be put to death. St. Ignatius publically provided the example for the Church in Antioch by refusing to make a sacrifice.
Trajan, who was traveling in Antioch at the time, himself accused Ignatius of defying imperial law. Ignatius was arrested and sent to Rome to be fed to the lions in the coloseum.
Word of St. Ignatius’ voyage to Rome preceded him. Everywhere along the way, Christians would gather to meet him at the stops. This gave him the opportunity to continue to instill courage in the faithful.
It was on this trip – the final one of his life – that he wrote a series of letters to the various Christian churches along the journey. We still have seven of these letters today. You can read these letters for free at NewAdvent.org; scroll down the list to get to St. Ignatius’ writings.
Let me quote from Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:
“…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.”
Here is a breakdown of what is contained in the letters:
- the first recorded use of the name “Catholic Church” to identify the Church of Christ: “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
- the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist: Heretics “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again.”
- the primacy of the Roman See
- And much, much more!
If you want to know what the first Christians believed – those who couldn’t be “Bible-only” Christians, because there was no Bible – read the letters of St. Ignatius. You will see that what this Apostolic Father teaches and has handed down is EXACTLY what the Catholic Church still teaches today.
As Blessed Cardinal Newman said (something like this), “To study the Church Fathers is to become Catholic.” John Henry Newman was an Anglican priest who converted at great personal cost to the true, Catholic Faith, in large part thanks to the witness of the Church Fathers.