Who was St. Ignatius of Antioch?
By Jean M. Heimann
St. Ignatius of Antioch ( c. 50 – c.107), whose feast we celebrate today, was an early Church Father, bishop, and martyr. Tradition tells us that he was a convert and a disciple of the Apostle Saint John.
Ignatius was born in Syria during the 1st century and was surnamed Theophorus, which means “the God-Bearer.” When he became the Bishop of Antioch around the year 70, he assumed authority of a local church, which was first led by Saint Peter prior to his move to Rome. Antioch was known as “the place where the disciples of Jesus Christ were first called Christians” (St. Alphonsus Liguori in “Martyrs of the First Ages”). Ignatius served as the third Bishop of Antioch, where he led his flock for nearly forty years.
Ignatius led the Christians of Antioch during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, the first of the emperors to declare his divinity by assuming the title “Lord and God.” Citizens who refused to pay him homage under this title were subject to punishment by death. He protected his flock through preaching, prayer, and fasting. Thus, he modeled the virtue of fortitude and endeavored to encourage it in those entrusted to him.
Later, the Emperor Trajan convicted Ignatius for his Christian witness and sent him from Syria to Rome in chains to be put to death. A detailed description of the trip to Rome is given by Agathopus and a deacon named Philo, who were with him, and who also wrote down his dictation of the seven letters of instruction on the Church, marriage, the Trinity, the Incarnation, Redemption, and the Eucharist. The letters were directed to six local churches throughout the empire and to his fellow bishop Polycarp.
Ignatius’ letters emphasized: Church unity, the dangers of heresy, and the extraordinary value of the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality.” These writings include the earliest surviving record of the Church described as “Catholic,” from the Greek word expressing both universality and fullness.
St. Ignatius of Antioch gave his final witness to Christ in the Roman Amphitheater, where he was devoured by lions. Prior to his death, he stated: “I am the wheat of the Lord. I must be ground by the teeth of these beasts to be made the pure bread of Christ.”