Saint Ignatius was given the surname, Theophorus, which means “God-clad” or “bearing God.” It’s believed that he was a late convert to Christianity and a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist. Besides what is contained his seven letters, we don’t know a great deal about the Bishop of Antioch (modern day Turkey). Historians tell us that he became bishop in 69 A.D. As a bishop, he stood adamantly against some of the heresies that began to rise within the Church. During the severe persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor, Trajan, he was condemned to death.
After praying for the Church of Antioch and offering up his body, he asked the Roman soldiers to take him to his death, which would bring him into contact with Jesus Christ. He was placed on a ship at the seaport of Seleucia; about sixteen miles from Antioch, but for some reason did not go directly to Rome. The ship traveled along the southern and western shores of Asia Minor. The ship stopped numerous times in cities where Ignatius was able to write letters and speak to the faithful.
While anchored in Smyrna, Ignatius wrote four letters: to the Ephesians, to the churches of Magnesia and Tralles and to the Christians living in Rome. While in this city, he also met his friend and fellow disciple, Saint Polycarp. The three bishops that oversaw Tralles, Magnesia, and Ephesus came to see him along with envoys from those cities.
After sometime in Smyrna, the Roman soldiers who held Ignatius in custody felt the need to get back to Rome quickly. They did not want to miss the games. Ignatius was a very well known individual and he would draw a large crowd to the amphitheater (the Colosseum was not built yet). However, before reaching Rome, they stopped one more time in the city of Troas. It was in Troas that Ignatius wrote three more letters: to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrnaeans, and to St. Polycarp.
As the ship finally made it to Rome, the faithful Christians came out to greet Ignatius with pageantry, but were also sad, for they knew he was to be eaten by the wild beasts. Some of the Roman Christians tried to use their clout (before he arrived in Rome) to have him released, however, St. Ignatius refused. He wanted to see the Lord through his death.
He gathered the particular church in Rome to pray for the universal church and that the persecutions facing the Church would end soon. He asked that the faithful to be charitable to their Roman persecutors. As tradition states it, he was quickly brought before the Roman prefect, who had the emperor’s letter condemning Ignatius to death. The day was December 20, 107 A.D.; it was the last day of the games. The soldiers hurried him over to the amphitheater where two fierce lions attacked him viciously and devoured his flesh quickly. All that was left were the larger bones from his body.
The seven letters of St. Ignatius are true gems of Christian literature. All the letters are short and intense! They focus on three points – his forthcoming martyrdom, unity of the Church, and the heretical movements that could lead to scandal and schism. Below are excerpts from each of the seven letters –
“Some, indeed, have a wicked and deceitful habit of flaunting the Name about, while acting in a way unworthy of God. You must avoid them like wild beasts. For they are mad dogs which bite on the sly. You must be on your guard against them, for it is hard to heal their bite.” – Letter to the Ephesians
“Now it is not right to presume on the youthfulness of your bishop. You ought to respect him as fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.” – Letter to the Magnesians
“For when you obey the bishop as if he was Jesus Christ, you are (as I see it) living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ’s way, who for our sakes suffered death that you might believe in his death and so escape dying yourselves.” – Letter to the Trallians
“Now is the moment I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil – only let me get to Jesus Christ…That is whom I am looking for – the One who died for us. That is whom I want – the one who rose for us.” – Letter to the Romans
“Be careful, then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar, just as there is one bishop along with the presbytery [priests] and deacons, my fellow slaves.” – Letter to the Philadelphians
“Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” – Letter to the Smyrnaeans (He was the first person to use the term, Catholic, in reference to the Christian Church [Greek: Katholicos – pertaining to the whole or universal]).
“A Christian does not control his own life, but gives his whole time to God. This is God’s work, and when you have completed it, it will be yours as well. For God’s grace gives me confidence that you are ready to act generously when it comes to his business.” – Letter to Polycarp
Let us pray: We ask that Saint Ignatius of Antioch intercede for us to Our Lord Jesus Christ when we are persecuted for being Catholics in this world. Give us strength, if the time comes, to be either martyrs for Jesus Christ and His Church. Amen.
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Laux, Fr. John, M.A., Church History. Tan Books and Publishers, 1945
Ramsey, Boniface, O.P., Beginning to Read the Fathers. Paulist Press, 1985
Richardson, Cyril C., Th.D., D.D., Early Christian Fathers. Collier Books, 1995.
Walsh, Michael, Butler’s Lives of the Saints. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991