Saint Ignatius was probably born in Syria in about the year 50 A.D. and became a Christian fairly late in life. There is some evidence that he was a disciple of Saint John the Apostle.
Ignatius was one of the earliest bishops for the Church in Antioch, probably the third, and was highly honored and received in the various Christian communities he visited. Saint Ignatius was the first writer outside the New Testament to refer to the virgin birth and use the term "Catholic Church." Primarily known through the seven letters he wrote to the Christian communities in the course of his journey from his capture for his faith in Antioch to his death in Rome, he was thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. According to the Church historian, Saint Jerome, the remains of Ignatius (also known as "Theophorus," "God-Bearer') were removed to a cemetery outside the Daphne Gate in Antioch and were later transferred to St. Clement's Church in Rome where they now rest.
This great bishop, who died in 110 A.D., spoke out against false teachings and contended with Roman persecution. Persecution did not go on all the time in the first two centuries. but prominent Church leaders could expect martyrdom at any time. Ignatius insisted on martyrdom for himself. On his way to Rome in chains, he wrote to Christians in the places he passed - Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Smyrna - urging the people not to stop his execution. His most famous are these: "I am God's wheat to be ground up by the teeth of wild beasts to become pure bread for Christ.”
Some modern Christians find this thinking hard to understand. Would it not have been better to avoid martyrdom in order to lead his people? Sometimes that is the case, but Ignatius realized his death would testify at a critical time to his belief in eternal life. It was a powerful testimony that we have to go back to the year 100 to understand. The Church had grown tremendously as many Gentiles became Christians. Still most people in the empire knew little about "This One called Chrestos." Christians looked like a strange sect. To see an esteemed, learned man like Ignatius give himself to the lions made a deep impression on the population. When a man is willing to die for his belief, he speaks with authority.
Ignatius was a strong, authoritative bishop who emphasized true Christian teaching. In his Letter to the Ephesians, he insisted that a valid Eucharist must be celebrated by the bishop or one he appoints. Perhaps the greatest appeal Ignatius has for today's Catholic is his poetic way of expressing his longing for God and his love for the Eucharist: "I have no taste for corruptible food nor the pleasures of this life. I desire to eat the Bread of God which is the flesh of Jesus Christ and to« drink I desire his blood which is love incorruptible. There is a living water within me which speaks and says. 'Come to the Father'."
By the year 130 A.D. the martyrdom of Saint Ignatius had become a memory that was already cherished throughout the Church. The Maronite Catholic Church celebrates his feast day on December 20.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch (By Pope Benedict XVI)
St Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch from 70 to 107, the date of his martyrdom. At that time, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were the three great metropolises of the Roman Empire.
Here in Antioch a flourishing Christian community developed. Its first Bishop was the Apostle Peter and it was there that the disciples were “for the first time called Christians”. Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth-century historian, dedicated an entire chapter of his Church History to the life of Ignatius.
Eusebius writes: “The Report says that Ignatius was sent from Syria to Rome, and became food for wild beasts on account of his testimony to Christ. And as he made the journey through Asia under the strictest military surveillance, he fortified the parishes in the various cities where he stopped by homilies and exhortations, and warned them above all to be especially on their guard against the heresies that were then beginning to prevail, and exhorted them to hold fast to the tradition of the Apostles”.
The first place Ignatius stopped on the way to his martyrdom was the city of Smyrna, where St Polycarp, a disciple of St John, was Bishop. Here, Ignatius wrote four letters, respectively to the Churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralli and Rome. "Having left Smyrna", Eusebius continues, Ignatius reached Troas and "wrote again": two letters to the Churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna, and one to Bishop Polycarp.
Thus, Eusebius completes the list of his letters, which have come down to us from the Church of the first century as a precious treasure. In reading these texts one feels the freshness of the faith of the generation which had still known the Apostles. In these letters, the ardent love of a saint can also be felt.
Lastly, the martyr travelled from Troas to Rome, where he was thrown to fierce wild animals in the Flavian Amphitheatre.
No Church Father has expressed the longing for union with Christ and for life in him with the intensity of Ignatius. In fact, two spiritual "currents" converge in Ignatius, that of Paul, straining with all his might for union with Christ, and that of John, concentrated on life in him. In turn, these two currents translate into the imitation of Christ, whom Ignatius several times proclaimed as "my" or "our God".
Thus, Ignatius implores the Christians of Rome not to prevent his martyrdom since he is impatient "to attain to Jesus Christ". And he explains, "It is better for me to die on behalf of Jesus Christ than to reign over all the ends of the earth.... Him I seek, who died for us: him I desire, who rose again for our sake.... Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God!" (Romans, 5-6).
One can perceive in these words on fire with love, the pronounced Christological "realism" typical of the Church of Antioch, more focused than ever on the Incarnation of the Son of God and on his true and concrete humanity: "Jesus Christ", St Ignatius wrote to the Smyrnaeans, "was truly of the seed of David", "he was truly born of a virgin", "and was truly nailed [to the Cross] for us" (1: 1).
Ignatius' irresistible longing for union with Christ was the foundation of a real "mysticism of unity". He describes himself: "I therefore did what befitted me as a man devoted to unity" (Philadelphians, 8: 1).
For Ignatius unity was first and foremost a prerogative of God, who, since he exists as Three Persons, is One in absolute unity. Ignatius often used to repeat that God is unity and that in God alone is unity found in its pure and original state. Unity to be brought about on this earth by Christians is no more than an imitation as close as possible to the divine archetype.
Thus, Ignatius reached the point of being able to work out a vision of the Church strongly reminiscent of certain expressions in Clement of Rome's Letter to the Corinthians. For example, he wrote: “It is fitting that you should concur with the will of your Bishop, which you also do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the Bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore, in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, you become a choir, that being harmonious in love and taking up the song of God in unison you may with one voice sing to the Father...”.
He confides to Polycarp: “I offer my life for those who are submissive to the Bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may I along with them obtain my portion in God! Labour together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together as the stewards and associates and servants of God. Please him under whom you fight, and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your Baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply”.
Overall, it is possible to grasp in the Letters of Ignatius a sort of constant and fruitful dialectic between two characteristic aspects of Christian life: on the one hand, the hierarchical structure of the Ecclesial Community, and on the other, the fundamental unity that binds all the faithful in Christ.
Consequently, their roles cannot be opposed to one another. On the contrary, the insistence on communion among believers and of believers with their Pastors was constantly reformulated in eloquent images and analogies: the harp, strings, intonation, the concert, the symphony. The special responsibility of Bishops, priests and deacons in building the community is clear.
This applies first of all to their invitation to love and unity. “Be one. One supplication, one mind, one hope in love.... Therefore, all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one”.
Ignatius was the first person in Christian literature to attribute to the Church the adjective "catholic" or "universal": “Wherever Jesus Christ is there is the Catholic Church”. And precisely in the service of unity to the Catholic Church, the Christian community of Rome exercised a sort of primacy of love: “The Church which presides in the place of the region of the Romans, and which is worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness... and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father...”.
As can be seen, Ignatius is truly the "Doctor of Unity": unity of God and unity of Christ, unity of the Church, unity of the faithful in “faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred”.
Ultimately, Ignatius' realism invites the faithful of yesterday and today, invites us all, to make a gradual synthesis between configuration to Christ (union with him, life in him) and dedication to his Church (unity with the Bishop, generous service to the community and to the world).
To summarize, it is necessary to achieve a synthesis between communion of the Church within herself and mission, the proclamation of the Gospel to others, until the other speaks through one dimension and believers increasingly “have obtained the inseparable Spirit, who is Jesus Christ”.