Saint Ignatius of Antioch (also known as Theophorus) (ca. 35-110) was the third Bishop and Patriarch of Antioch and possibly a student of the Apostle John. En route to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which have been preserved as an example of very early Christian theology. Important topics addressed in these letters include ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the role of bishops.
St. Ignatius' feast day is observed on December 20 in Eastern Christianity. In Western Christianity it is celebrated on October 17 (its traditional feast day in the Orthodox faiths), but on February 1 by those who follow the General Roman Calendar of 1962.
Ignatius, along with Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna, is one of the chief Apostolic Fathers, early Christian authors who knew the apostles personally and were taught and usually ordained by them as bishops.
Besides his Latin name, Ignatius, he also called himself Theophorus ("God Bearer"), and tradition says he was one of the children Jesus took in His arms and blessed. St. Ignatius may have been a disciple of the Apostle John.
St. Ignatius is one of the Apostolic Fathers (the earliest authoritative group of the Church Fathers). He based his authority on being a bishop of the Church, living his life in the imitation of Christ.
From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated. —Ignatius to the Romans, 5.
He was sentenced to die in the Colosseum. The Roman authorities hoped to make an example of him and thus discourage Christianity from spreading, but his journey to Rome instead offered him the opportunity to meet with and teach Christians along his route, and he wrote six letters to the churches in the region and one to a fellow bishop.
By the 5th century, this authentic collection had been enlarged by spurious letters, and some of the original letters had been changed with interpolations, created to posthumously enlist Ignatius as an unwitting witness in theological disputes of that age, while the purported eye-witness account of his martyrdom is also thought to be a forgery from around the same time.
A detailed but spurious account of Ignatius' arrest and his travails and martyrdom is the material of the Martyrium Ignatii which is presented as being an eyewitness account for the church of Antioch, and as if written by Ignatius' companions, Philo of Cilicia, deacon at Tarsus, and Rheus Agathopus, a Syrian. Though Bishop Ussher regarded it as genuine, if there is any genuine nucleus of the Martyrium, it has been so greatly expanded with interpolations that no part of it is without questions. Its most reliable manuscript is the 10th century Codex Colbertinus (Paris), in which the Martyrium closes the collection. The Martyrium presents the confrontation of the bishop Ignatius with Trajan at Antioch, a familiar trope of Acta of the martyrs, and many details of the long, partly overland voyage to Rome.
After St. Ignatius' martyrdom in the Flavian Amphitheatre, his remains were honorably carried back to Antioch by his companions, and were first interred outside the city gates, then removed by the Emperor Theodosius II to the Tychaeum, or Temple of Tyche which was converted into a Catholic church dedicated to Ignatius. In 637 the relics were translated to the Church of St Clement in Rome.
The letters of St. Ignatius have proved to be important testimony to the development of Catholic theology, since the number of extant writings from this period of Church history is very small. They bear signs of being written in great haste and without a proper plan, such as run-on sentences and an unsystematic succession of thought. Ignatius is one of the earliest Catholic writers to re-emphasize loyalty to a single bishop in each city (or diocese) who is assisted by both presbyters (priests, a.k.a. elders) and deacons. Earlier writings only mention either bishops or presbyters, and give the impression that there was usually more than one bishop per congregation. For instance, while the three offices of bishop, priest (presbyter) and deacon appear apostolic in origin, sometimes the titles of "bishop" and "presbyter" could be used for both offices.
St. Ignatius stressed the value of the Eucharist, calling it a "medicine of immortality" (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20:2). The very strong desire for bloody martyrdom in the arena, which Ignatius expresses rather graphically in places, may seem quite odd to the modern reader. An examination of his theology of soteriology shows that he regarded salvation as one being free from the powerful fear of death and thus to bravely face martyrdom.
Be not seduced by strange doctrines nor by antiquated fables, which are profitless. For if even unto this day we live after the manner of Judaism, we avow that we have not received grace.... If then those who had walked in ancient practices attained unto newness of hope, no longer observing Sabbaths but fashioning their lives after the Lord's day, on which our life also arose through Him and through His death which some men deny ... how shall we be able to live apart from Him? ... It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practise Judaism. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity — Ignatius to the Magnesians 8:1, 9:1-2, 10:3, Lightfoot translation.
He is also responsible for the first known use of the Greek word katholikos (καθολικός), meaning "universal," to describe the church, writing:
Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8, J.R. Willis translation.
It is from the word katholikos that the word "catholic" comes. When Ignatius wrote the Letter to the Smyrnaeans in about the year 107 and used the word "catholic", he used it as if it were a word already in use to describe the Church. This has led many scholars to conclude that the appellation "Catholic Church" with its ecclesial connotation may have been in use as early as the last quarter of the first century.
On the Eucharist, Ignatius wrote in his letter to the Smyrnaeans:
Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1
Saint Ignatius's most famous quotation, however, comes from his letter to the Romans:
I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God's sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.— Letter to the Romans