An Early Bishop and Martyr
One of the earliest saints about whom we have quite of a bit of information is St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was a bishop and martyr for the Faith who died around the year 107. Through him, we have the written witness of the life of the early Church.
After he was arrested for failing to honor the gods, St. Ignatius was taken from Antioch to Rome where he was to be martyred. Along the way, he wrote seven letters to six churches and one fellow bishop. These letters have come down to us from his time, and they are considered valuable documents of the early Church after the Apostles.
As you might imagine, what he shares about the life of late first century and early second century Church is of great interest given how he was writing so close to the time of the Apostles.
What is very interesting is that what you find in his letters, is what you find throughout Church history and up to today. He describes the hierarchy of the bishops, priests, and deacons. St. Ignatius touches upon the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine that Jesus has both a divine and human nature. And he proclaims the unchangeable teaching of the Church that in the Eucharist we have the very flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
In other words, St. Ignatius shares that the early Church was in full possession of the deposit of Faith, and despite persecutions was sharing the Good News to a pagan world that needed the Gospel.
Let's step back and learn a little bit about who St. Ignatius was.
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An Early Example
It is believed that he was born in what would be the country of Syria today. The date of his birth is unknown. There is, however, a charming legend about him as a very young child. According to the story, when Our Lord placed a small child among the disciples to teach them about humility, the child was none other than St. Ignatius. Jesus' words to the disciples, who were arguing over who would be the greatest were:
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 18:3-4)
Interestingly, the disciples did become men of humility and with the exception of St. John, all of them were put to death for their faith in Christ.
Fortunately, there is more clarity about his adult life. He was a disciple of that same St. John who also wrote a Gospel, three epistles, and the book of Revelation. It is worth pausing to think that what we then have in the letters written by St. Ignatius are the writings of a disciple of one of 12 apostles. It is actually quite incredible.
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Bishop of Antioch
According to the early historian and bishop Eusebius, St. Ignatius succeeded Evodius as bishop of the city of Antioch. In the early Church, the see of Antioch was very important. It was considered the bishopric of St. Peter before he left for Rome and was succeeded by Evodius at Antioch. And, as it is reported in the book of Acts (11:26), it was in Antioch that the followers of Christ were first called Christians or little Christs.
As bishop of Antioch, he helped the believers weather storms of persecution which came their way both externally and internally. Through his example, teaching, and love for his flock, he helped the believers remain faithful And for a time, there was peace in Antioch, although it would not last for long.
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A New Wave of Persecution
Trajan became emperor in the year 98. The man from what is modern day Spain, was known for his military successes. Eventually, he would oversee the Roman Empire which expanded to its greatest geographical size. Around the ninth year of his reign, fresh from victories over the Dacians and Scythians, the emperor was keen on seeing that everyone join in his gratitude to the gods for his victories. He declared that everyone should worship the gods or face persecution.
It just so happened that the emperor was in Antioch on his way to Armenia. As part of the persecution, St. Ignatius, as an important leader of the believers was apprehended and brought before the emperor.
The emperor grilled the elderly bishop who did not shrink in his responses.
Trajan began, "Who are you, you evil demon, who so zealously breaks our commands, and persuades others to do the same, so that they should miserably perish?"
In replay St. Ignatius said, "No one ought to call Theophorus [he referrred to himself as the God-bearer] evil; for all of the demons have departed from the servants of God. But if, because I am an enemy to these demons, you call me wicked in respect to them, I quite agree with you; for inasmuch as I have Christ the King of heaven within me, I destroy all the devices of these demons."
"Do you mean Him who was crucified under Pontius Pilate?"
"I mean Him who crucified my sin, with him who was the inventor of it, and who has condemned and cast down all the deceit and malice of the devil under the feet of those who carry Him in their heart."
Trajan who did not like the obstinacy of these Christians, gave the sentence:
"We command that Ignatius, who affirms that he carries about within him Him that was crucified, be bound by soldiers, and carried to the great city of Rome, there to be devoured by the beasts, for the gratification of the people."
Immediately, St. Ignatius was bound and taken by a military guard who would accompany him all the way from Antioch to Rome.
The shock to the faithful of Antioch must have been great. Their bishop had just been condemned to die. The one who had helped them through good and ill times was snatched from them to never been seen again.
Bound for Rome
The journey to Rome took months because of the way the ships would typically travel by sailing from one port to another nearby port in a sort of skipping way across the Mediterranean.
St. Ignatius himself, although perhaps concerned for his life, nevertheless was clear that he was more than ready to die for Christ as he thought it was the way to be a true disciple of His Lord who had died for Him. In one of his letters addressed to the Romans, he makes it clear that he does not want any interference in his martyrdom.
Although actually chained to his captors as St. Paul was, St. Ignatius was able, like St. Paul, to receive visitors during his journey. With great joy, when he was in Smyrna he visited with St. Polycarp who had also been a disciple of St. John.
And it was in Smyrna and Troas that St. Ignatius wrote his famous seven letters. Five of these are addressed as a bishop who is sharing his concerns and teaching to five different churches. One letter is to St. Polycarp which was written to encourage him, and the final letter is to the Christians in Rome. In that letter, he asks for their prayers that he would be faithful to the end.
Eventually, after the long journey over sea and land, he arrived in Rome. At that point, no time was lost in entering him in the next public spectacle where he was devoured by wild beasts for the entertainment of the crowd.
The Prayers of the Faithful are Answered
The Roman Christians who had learned of St. Ignatius from his letter to them had only been able to spend the briefest of time with him before he was killed. When it became clear that St. Ignatius was about to be slain, a number of them gathered together to pray for him.
They continued to pray even past the time in which they assumed he had won the martyr's crown. As they prayed for a long time, they became drowsy and some fell asleep. Several of these faithful believers had visions of St. Ignatius. In one vision, he was giving them a warm embrace. In another, St. Ignatius was praying for them. And in a third, he was by the side of the Lord showing signs of having labored for a great victory.
As they shared their visions with one another, the believers took great comfort in knowing that this faithful disciple had gained the truest victory and was with the Lord for all eternity.
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