Today, October 17, is the Memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch.
St. Ignatius was born in Syria and converted to Christianity in his youth. Traditionally, he and his friend, St. Polycarp, were disciples of the Apostle John.
Ignatius became Bishop of Antioch in AD 66, succeeding St. Evodius, who had succeeded St. Peter after the Chief Apostle left for Rome. The Emperor Trajan visited Antioch in AD 107 and demanded that the Christians of the city either deny Christ or face martyrdom. St. Ignatius would not deny Christ, so he was arrested and arrangements were made for his transport to Rome for execution.
On the way to Rome, St. Ignatius’ soldier escort made several stops. St. Ignatius exploited these sojourns to take time to write seven letters, five to churches in Asia Minor, one to his friend St. Polycarp, who was now Bishop of Smyrna, and one to the Christians of Rome, begging them not to take any action that would prevent his being martyred for Christ. These letters are extant and provide a witness to some of the earliest theology and practice of the Church.
In his Letter to the Church in Ephesus, St. Ignatius wrote of the Church’s faith in Jesus as God incarnate:
“There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In his Letter to the Church in Magnesia, St. Ignatius references the three hierarchical orders of bishop, priest, and deacon, and recommends obedience to each according to their representing God, the apostles, and Jesus Christ to the faithful:
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.”
In his Letter to the Church in Smyrna, St. Ignatius makes the first historical use in writing of the term “Catholic Church,” as he speaks of the authority of the bishop:
“Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.”
Also in his Letter to the Church in Smyrna, St. Ignatius affirms the Church’s faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as he condemns those who deny it:
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God … They 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. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.”
In his Letter to the Church in Rome, St. Ignatius asked that the Christians not prevent his martyrdom. He famously referred to himself as the wheat of God, to be ground by the teeth of the beasts in order to become the pure bread of God:
“I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments(2) I may be found a sacrifice [to God]. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free,(3) while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freedman of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being a prisoner, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain.”
All in all, these seven letters serve as a masterful witness to the faith and practice of the early Church, as well as to the organization of the Church shortly after the end of the Apostolic Age. They are a treasure of the Church and an encouragement to all the faithful. The seven letters can be found on the CatholicCulture.org website: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=3836
St. Ignatius was martyred in Rome in the Circus Maximus on October 17, AD 107.
Almighty ever-living God, who adorn the sacred body of your Church with the confessions of holy Martyrs, grant, we pray, that, just as the glorious passion of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, which we celebrate today, brought him eternal splendor, so it may be for us unending protection. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Collect Prayer for the Memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.