St. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 110 A.D.) converted as an adult to Christianity and became the third bishop of Antioch, which is in present day Turkey, an office originally held by St. Peter the Apostle himself. St. Ignatius was possibly a student of the Apostle St. John. He is the second after Pope Clement to mention St. Paul’s epistles which were beginning to circulate throughout the Catholic world. He was also the first writer outside the New Testament to speak of Jesus’ virgin birth. In the year 107 A.D., Emperor Trajan visited Antioch and forced the Christians there to choose death or apostasy. Ignatius would certainly not deny Christ and hence was condemned to be put to death in Rome. Ignatius bravely met the lions in the Circus Maximus in Rome.
St. Ignatius is best known for the seven letters he wrote on his final journey from Antioch to Rome. All seven letters have been preserved. Five of these letters are addressed to churches in Asia Minor; they urge the Christians there to remain faithful to God even in the face of persecution and to obey their Church superiors. Already in the first Christian century scholarly discussions were occurring on the Incarnation of Christ, the nature of the church, the sacraments, and the role of bishops. Ignatius wisely warned the Eastern churches against any heretical doctrines, providing them with solid Christian truths. The sixth letter was written to St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, in Turkey, who was most likely another disciple of St. John, and who was also later martyred for the faith. The final letter begs the Christians in Rome not to try to stop his martyrdom. “The only thing I ask of you is to allow me to offer the libation of my blood to God. I am the wheat of the Lord; may I be ground by the teeth of the beasts to become the immaculate bread of Christ.”
St. Ignatius is the earliest known Christian writer to emphasize loyalty to a single bishop in each city who was in turn assisted by both priests and deacons. In his letter written to the Christians at Trallia, St. Ignatius makes an explicit outline of the structure of the Church in his era: “It is therefore necessary, whatsoever things you do, to do nothing without the bishop. And be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall at last be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being the ministers of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation against them, as they would avoid fire. And again, “In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as leaders from God, an assembly of the apostles.” Then he adds pointedly: “Apart from these, there is no Church.”
Again, the framework of the Church as found throughout the Catholic world today is clearly outlined in another letter written less that a hundred years after the death of Christ: “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Whatsoever the bishop shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.” Clearly the believing community throughout the Roman world is beginning to have an individual and recognizable identity: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” This instruction is also remarkable because it is the first recorded use of the phrase “Catholic Church,” meaning the universal Church.
St. Ignatius also clearly understood the Eucharist to be the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. He wrote: “I hunger for the bread of God, the flesh of Jesus Christ; I long to drink of his blood, the gift of his unending love.” Once again he writes: “Be careful, therefore, to take part only in the one Eucharist; for there is only one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one Cup to unite us with His Blood.” St. Ignatius is harsh on those who misunderstood the Eucharist: “They even abstain from the Eucharist and from the public prayers because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father of His goodness raised up again.”
Perhaps most pertinent for the Church in today’s world are these ominous words also from St. Ignatius: “Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world.” The Church in Ignatius’ day survived and so shall today’s Church!