St. Ignatius of Antioch: Model for Bishops

On December 20, 117 A.D. a great season of Carnival was ending in Rome.  For weeks, crowds of sixty to eighty-thousand people had gathered each day in the Coliseum to be entertained by clowns, mimes, and dancers.  Exotic elephants from Africa performed wearing full armor.  Bears, leopards, and trained hunting dogs fought one another to the death, to the cheers of the bloodthirsty crowds.  In the afternoons, it was the gladiators of the Imperial Army who fought and died.  But the grand finale of each day was the lions.  Held beneath the floor of the arena in filthy, cramped cages, the lions were starved for three days before their “performance.”  Common criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war were their prey.  But it was the Christians that were the crowd’s favorite victims.  As the sun set on the city of Rome, the agitated crowd grew quiet as they anticipated the highlight of the games, and the end of the Carnival season.  The Emperor had promised a special treat.
 
Sixty-seven years earlier, in Syria, a boy named Ignatius was born into a pagan family about whom very little is known.  In his city of Antioch, a Christian Church had been founded by St. Peter the Apostle, only a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This church, the first founded by St. Peter, was also the first in history to use the word “Christian” to describe its’ members.  The new faith was flourishing in Antioch and Ignatius heard a new pastor there preaching about love, mercy, salvation, and everlasting life.  The pastor was St. John the Apostle and Ignatius fell in love with Christ and His Church.  He was baptized by St. John and later ordained to the priesthood.  Ignatius’ gift for preaching the Gospel was soon well-known and, at the age of 27, he was made Bishop of Antioch by St. John himself.
 
Ignatious was loved by the Christians of Antioch because of his devotion to Christ.  He spent hours each day in prayer and fasting.  But he was also tireless in seeking to protect his people from the persecutions of the Roman Emperor.  For forty years as Bishop, Ignatius preached and taught Christ’s love to a pagan world that valued life only as a commodity to be bought, sold, and destroyed at a whim.  Ignatius was a light in this darkness, reflecting the Light of His Saviour through his preaching, writing, and service to His Church.
 
But the Emperor Trajan saw Ignatius as a threat to the stability of Rome and had him arrested for the crime of Christianity and ordered him bound in chains for transport to Rome and his death.  When he heard this, Ignatius fell on his knees and praised God, giving thanks to Him for finding him worthy of the same treatment given to St. Peter and St. Paul.
 
The lengthy trip to Rome, both by boat and over land, became a sort of “victory tour” for Ignatius.  At every stop along the way, he was greeted as a conquering hero by the Christians in each town.  Ignatius used this trip to write letters of support and encouragement to the churches around the Mediterranean.  Seven of these letters survive for us today, the oldest Church letters outside the New Testament.  In them, Ignatius affirms many of the core truths of Catholic doctrine still held today.  Ignatius is the first writer in history to use the word “Catholic” in describing the world’s Christians.  He is the first to use the word “Eucharist” which he called “the medicine of immortality” in reference to the Body of Christ shared in Holy Communion.  His letters reflect the primacy of Rome, the hierarchy of the Church and the character of the Church as one, holy, Apostolic, and infallible.  By the time Ignatius arrived in Rome, the entire Empire knew he was coming.
 
Late on that December afternoon, a small door opened onto the blood-soaked sand floor of the Coliseum.  Ignatius stepped out in front of the crowd, smiling.  He dropped to his knees, raised his face and arms to Heaven and gave his body and soul back to the Christ Who had saved him.  St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr, was reduced to bones by the lions of the Roman Empire.  His faith in Christ lives on in his letters and in the model he left for us of a holy life, unafraid of the world in which he lived, dedicated to the work of sharing the good news of Salvation.
 
“I am God’s wheat and I am to be ground by the teeth of the wild beast, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” 
                       —St. Ignatius of Antioch (50 A.D. – 117 A.D.)Letter to the Romans, written on the way to his martyrdom
 
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