Born in first-century Syria, St. Ignatius was one of the early Church figures who followed directly in the footsteps of the Apostles. Quite literally! He was both a student of St. John the Evangelist and ordained by St. Peter as bishop of Antioch. When a persecution of Christians broke out under Emperor Trajan, St. Ignatius was captured and, like St. Paul before him, brought to Rome for trial and execution. And like both St. Peter and St. Paul, he died a martyr in that holy city around the year 120 AD.
St. Ignatius’ most enduring legacy is his seven letters to churches in cities around the Mediterranean during his journey to Rome. These letters give us a snapshot of the Church in its early stages, and they show us a Church we can easily recognize as our own.
The structure of the Church that St. Ignatius describes is familiar to us: a bishop at the head with priests and deacons assisting. He writes that the Church of Rome “presides in charity” over the other churches, an early affirmation of papal primacy. His letters also give us the first recorded uses of two essential terms in our faith: His is our first reference to the Church as a whole as the “Catholic Church,” and the first reference to the Blessed Sacrament as the “Eucharist.” And he testifies to the belief in the Real Presence of Christ, noting that some “confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ.” A Church led by bishops, priests, and deacons, headed by the Church of Rome in a worldwide “Catholic” communion, celebrating a Eucharist believed to be the true Body and Blood of Christ. This is the essence of our Church, present in the year 100 AD!
St. Ignatius shows us the Church in its infant stage, young but recognizable to us today in its essence. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote that “the whole system of Catholic doctrine may be discovered, at least in outline, not to say in parts filled up, in the course of his seven epistles.” They are an invaluable source and proof of the consistency of Catholic belief and teaching over 2,000 years. May we always adhere to the faith he professed. St. Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr, pray for us!