Tomorrow we celebrate the feast day of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Although we do not know much about his early life, the last several months of his time on earth echo throughout history. Ignatius was appointed bishop of Antioch around the year 69 AD. During his time as bishop, the emperor Trajan called him an “evil spirit who leads his people to destruction.” Ignatius, also known as Theophorus (which translates to mean “God Bearer”), answered the accusation with this: “There is but one God, who created Heaven and Earth, and all that is in them, and one Jesus, made Christ, into whose kingdom I earnestly desire to be admitted.” His defiance angered Trajan and prompted him to question whether the Jesus he spoke of was the same one crucified by Pontius Pilot. Once again in defiance, Ignatius responded, “Yes, the same, who by his death has crucified both sin and it's author, and who has proclaimed that every make of the devil shall be trodden under foot by those who bear him in their hearts.” In these statements we can see that Ignatius truly epitomizes the name Theophorus.
Because of these strong statements, Ignatius was sentenced to death by wild beasts in the Roman Colosseum. He was transported by ship from the seaport of Selucia, but did not travel directly to Rome—which proved to be a great mistake for those trying to rid the world of Christianity. All along his journey through Asia Minor, Christians would receive letters from Ignatius that strengthened their faith and united them. He was afforded traveling partners along the way. One of these friends, Philo, who was deacon of Tarsus and Agothopus, reportedly authored the tale of his martyrdom. Many friends and followers of Ignatius traveled to Rome ahead of the ship to await Ignatius' arrival. This infamous journey produced six letters to churches to the Christian communities throughout Asia Minor. He also wrote a letter to Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, a fellow companion.
These letters not only contain some profound and famous quotes by Ignatius, but are very important and relevant to Apostolic teachings, traditions and early Church beliefs passed on from Jesus to the Apostles, bringing true meaning to Apostolic succession. These letters undoubtedly spurred the growth and strength of Christianity for centuries to come and have proved to be the basis for the development of Christian theology. Ignatius is also known for a “first” in Christian literature, when in the letter to Smyrna, the Catholic church is spoken of. The word he uses is “Katholikos,” a Greek word meaning “universal.” Ignatius said: “Wherever the Bishop appears, there, let the people be, as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” An important fact here is that he didn't need to explain the Greek word. It is suggested by many scholars and theologians that this wasn't the first time the word had been used.
Ignatius relentlessly taught the beliefs and practices of the early Church. He stressed the value of the Eucharist, calling it “the medicine of immorality.” He taught loyalty and obedience to the bishops as the “transmitters” of the true Apostolic tradition along with the need for unity and peace. This is still very relevant to the Church today.
Prior to his arrival in Rome, Ignatius pleaded to his friends and supporters that they not interfere with his eventual death and martyrdom. He said, “I am God's wheat and shall be ground by teeth of wild animals. I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God, if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts for they are my way to God.” He also said, “I prefer death in Christ to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sake is my one desire.”
Leading his flock through faith and love for Jesus Christ, he became a living tradition and disciple of the early Church. Was it the end for St. Ignatius on that bloodied dirt floor of the Roman Colosseum that day? I think not. For as the Bishop of Antioch, he catapulted the growth of the Church and the “one true faith.” He achieved his life’s goal: to be in the presence of Jesus Christ for all eternity. Tomorrow we celebrate the feastday of St. Ignatius of Antioch, early Church Father, proclaimer and defender of the faith, and true disciple of Christ. We can all take inspiration from his true devotion to the Church and her mission. A celebration of a Saint, indeed!
Mark A. Straub, Sr. is a member of the Knights of Columbus and president of the parish council of Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Woodhaven, Michigan.
An excerpt from Cardinal Sodano’s homily, given this morning during the Mass for the Election of a Roman Pontiff (full text):
Brothers and sisters in Christ today’s Gospel takes us back to the Last Supper, when the Lord said to his Apostles: “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The text is linked to the first reading from the Messiah’s actions in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, reminding us that the fundamental attitude of the Pastors of the Church is love. It is this love that urges us to offer our own lives for our brothers and sisters. Jesus himself tells us: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12).
The basic attitude of every Shepherd is therefore to lay down one’s life for his sheep (John 10:15). This also applies to the Successor of Peter, Pastor of the Universal Church. As high and universal the pastoral office, so much greater must be the charity of the Shepherd. In the heart of every Successor of Peter, the words spoken one day by the Divine Master to the humble fisherman of Galilee have resounded: “Diligis me plus his? Pasce agnos meos… pasce oves meas”; “Do you love me more than these? Feed my lambs… feed my sheep!” (John 21:15-17)
In the wake of this service of love toward the Church and towards all of humanity, the last popes have been builders of so many good initiatives for people and for the international community, tirelessly promoting justice and peace. Let us pray that the future Pope may continue this unceasing work on the world level.
Moreover, this service of charity is part of the intimate nature of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of this fact when he said: “The service of charity is also a constitutive element of the Church’s mission and an indispensable expression of her very being; (Apostolic Letter in the form of a Motu Proprio Intima Ecclesiae natura, November 11, 2012, introduction; cf. Deus caritas est, n. 25).
It is a mission of charity that is proper to the Church, and in a particular way is proper to the Church of Rome, that in the beautiful expression of St. Ignatius of Antioch, is the Church that “presides in charity” “praesidet caritati” (cf. Ad Romanos (preface).; Lumen Gentium, n. 13).
My brothers, let us pray that the Lord will grant us a Pontiff who will embrace this noble mission with a generous heart. We ask this of the Lord, through the intercession of Mary most holy, Queen of the Apostles and of all the Martyrs and Saints, who through the course of history, made this Church of Rome glorious through the ages. Amen.