Early Church Father's example of Christian witness
by Joanna Bogle
Ever heard of Theophorus? No, I thought you hadn’t. He is better known as Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Chances are that you haven’t heard of him under that name, either. Most Catholics have heard of the famous Saint Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuits, played a major role in the counter-Reformation, and is deservedly famous. But few know of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, after whom the more famous Ignatius was named.
This first Ignatius is also known as Theophorus, which means “God-bearer”. He belongs to the very earliest days of the Church and is one of the Apostolic Fathers. He was born in Syria around the year 50 and died at Rome between 98 and 117. He was appointed Bishop of Antioch after Saint Peter had preached there. His life actually overlapped with that of Our Lord and the Apostles tradition says that he was one of the children whom Christ picked up and blessed as described in the Scriptures: “Let the little children come to me....”
Ignatius, like so many of the first bishops of the Church, was martyred. The Church was considered a threat to the Roman authorities. There was no special objection to the Christians acknowledging Christ as one God among many what posed a problem was the claim made that Christ was unique, the way to salvation. This is still an issue in our own day, as many Catholics find. We are often told “Well, it may be true for you, and we don’t mind you going to your church and having bells and incense and candles and chanting. But it isn’t right for you to claim that Christ is a universal truth. That is intolerant and dangerous! It shouldn’t be allowed!”
Ignatius was arrested and taken to Rome for trial and execution. But what is important to history is that on the journey he wrote a series of seven letters, including one to a fellow bishop. In their content and their theology they reveal the beliefs of the early Church beliefs still held by Catholics today.
Ignatius used the word katholikos catholic meaning universal, to describe the Church. He wrote about the Eucharist, calling it “the medicine of immortality”. He emphasized the importance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day. And he emphasized the role of a bishop: “It is not lawful to baptize or give Communion without the consent of the bishop”.
It is clear that Ignatius did not see the Church as an informal gathering of various local groups, and he did not see Holy Communion as merely a shared common meal. He saw the Church as having an apostolic structure, and he saw the Eucharist as something infinitely sacred and precious.
In one letter, he writes about a group that has broken away from the Church and hold false doctrines: “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 the Father, in His goodness, raised up again...”
In Rome, Ignatius would endure martyrdom by being thrown to the wild beasts. In sordid scenes of excitement, crowds in the Colosseum would shout and cheer as victims were brought into the arena and lions or other savage animals were let loose on them. This was a civilization in decline, although people did not know it. The Christians they were punishing and rejecting would in due course produce something new: the Roman Empire would itself become Christian, and its authority and influence would be used to spread the Christian Gospel to new territories.
Ignatius could not have foreseen all that was coming in the years that lay between his era and that of the 21st century. He could not know of the great religious orders, the missionary efforts, the schools and hospitals and universities, the great cathedrals of Europe and the New World. He could not see the mistakes and the muddles, the arguments and bitterness and even cruelty that would disfigure the Church’s story.
He could not see the heroes and the saints Peter Claver among the slaves, Edmund Campion in the Tower of London, Damien among the lepers, Edith Stein in Auschwitz. He could not see the teachers and the martyrs, the bishops and the statesmen, the writers and the healers, the visionaries and the humble servants of the poor. He could never have imagined TV bringing Pope John Paul’s funeral to millions, or young people from around the world kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament with Pope Benedict XVI at a World Youth Day in Australia.
But the faith that Ignatius upheld and for which he died is the one we profess, Sunday by Sunday. He would echo the Creed with us, he would kneel with us at the Consecration and bow his head as the priest lifted up the Host and chalice at the Elevation. He would understand what a Catholic family was doing on a Sunday morning hurrying off to Mass. And yet he lived in an unimaginably different form of civilization, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. When you think about it, that is quite extraordinary.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
Related Page: St. Ignatius of Antioch
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