The second Bishop of Antioch, Syria, this disciple of the beloved Disciple John was consecrated Bishop around the year 69 by the Apostle Peter, the first Pope. A holy man who was deeply loved by the Christian faithful, he always made it his special care to defend “orthodoxy” (right teaching) and “orthopraxy” (right practice) among the early Christians.
In 107, during the reign of the brutal Emperor Trajan, this holy Bishop was wrongfully sentenced to death because he refused to renounce the Christian faith. He was taken under guard to Rome where he was to be brutally devoured by wild beasts in a public spectacle. During his journey, his travels took him through Asia Minor and Greece. He made good use of the time by writing seven letters of encouragement, instruction and inspiration to the Christians in those communities. We still have these letters as a great treasure of the Church today.
The content of the letters addressed the hierarchy and structure of the Church as well as the content of the orthodox Christian faith. It was Bishop Ignatius who first used the term “catholic” to describe the whole Church. These letters connect us to the early Church and the unbroken, clear teaching of the Apostles which was given to them directly by Jesus Christ. They also reveal the holiness of a man of God who became himself a living letter of Christ. The shedding his blood in the witness of holy martyrdom was the culmination of a life lived conformed to Jesus Christ. Ignatius sought to offer himself, in Christ, for the sake of the Church which he loved. His holy martyrdom occurred in the year 107.
In his pastoral letters he regularly thanked his brother and sister Christians for their concern for his well being but insisted on following through in his final witness of fidelity: “I know what is to my advantage. At last I am becomŹing his disciple. May nothing entice me till I happily make my way to Jesus Christ! Fire, cross, struggles with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs-let them come to me, provided only I make my way to Jesus Christ. I would rather die and come to Jesus Christ than be king over the entire earth. Him I seek who died for us; him I love who rose again because of us.”
Bishop Ignatius was not afraid of death. He knew that it had been defeated by the Master. He followed the Lord Jesus into his Passion, knowing that he would rise with Him in his Resurrection. He wrote to the disciples in Rome: “Permit me to imitate my suffering God … I am God’s wheat and I shall be ground by the teeth of beasts, that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” The beauty of this Eucharistic symbolism in these words reflects the deep theology of a mystic. He was dedicated to defending the true teaching handed down by the Apostles so that the brothers and sisters in the early Christian communities, and we who stand on their shoulders, would never be led astray by false teaching. He urged them to always listen to their Bishops because they were the successors of the Apostles. He died a Martyrs death in Rome, devoured by two lions in one of the cruel demonstrations of Roman excess and animosity toward the true faith.