Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr

February 1

Today is the feast day of Saint Ignatius of Antioch.  Ora pro nobis. 

Also called Theophorus (Theophoros); born in Syria, around the year 50; died at Rome between 98 and 117.

More than one of the earliest ecclesiastical writers have given credence, though apparently without good reason, to the legend that Ignatius was the child whom the Savior took up in His arms, as described in Mark 9:35. It is also believed, and with great probability, that, with his friend Polycarp, he was among the auditors of the Apostle St. John. If we include St. Peter, Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch and the immediate successor of Evodius (Eusebius, “Hist. Eccl.”, II, iii, 22). Theodoret (“Dial. Immutab.”, I, iv, 33a, Paris, 1642) is the authority for the statement that St. Peter appointed Ignatius to the See of Antioch. St. John Chrysostom lays special emphasis on the honor conferred upon the martyr in receiving his episcopal consecration at the hands of the Apostles themselves (“Hom. in St. Ig.”, IV. 587). Natalis Alexander quotes Theodoret to the same effect (III, xii, art. xvi, p. 53). (5)

Saint Ignatius, Bishop and Martyr
by Fr. Francis Xavier, 1877

St. Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostles, but more particularly of St. John, lived in the first century of the Christian Era. His surname was Theophorus–that is, a man who carries God in his heart. That he was a man of great piety is evident from the fact that he became Bishop of the city in which St. Peter had first established his See, in which he was succeeded by St. Evodius. I speak of Antioch, where the believers, heretofore called “disciples,” first received the name of “Christians.” For forty years this holy Bishop presided over the Church of Antioch, with so much wisdom and such unceasing solicitude, that he not only became widely known, but his counsel, on many occasions, was sought by all the Bishops in Syria. At the time of the persecution of Domitian, he remained with his flock, exhorting them to continue steadfast in the true Faith; but, for himself, he desired nothing so much as to shed his blood for Christ’s sake. Besides firmness in faith, he most earnestly preached to those committed to his charge obedience to the Bishops and Priests and the avoidance of heretics. “Be obedient to the Priests and Bishops,” said he, “but shun the heretics as wild beasts, that approach unawares, and wound you in such a manner that you cannot be easily healed.”

While St. Ignatius was thus anxiously occupied with the salvation of his flock, the Emperor Trajan came to Antioch, full of vain pride on account of the victory he had just won over the Parthians. Having been informed that St. Ignatius was the greatest enemy of the gods of the Empire, as well as the principal protector of Christianity, he had the Bishop brought before him. He asked if what had been reported of him was true. Undauntedly the Saint replied: “I pray to the only true God, and how happy would you and the whole Empire be if you believed in Him also! The gods whom you worship are devils: I cannot pray to them.” Trajan, interrupting him, said: “There is no time now to dispute;–sacrifice to my gods, and I will make you High Priest of Jupiter and a member of the Imperial Council. If you refuse, you shall die the most cruel death.” “I am a Priest of the Most High, to whom I daily offer a sacrifice,” replied St. Ignatius; “and blessed indeed should I consider myself were I to be sacrificed to His glory.” Trajan, enraged, immediately condemned him to die, giving this order: “Ignatius shall be conducted, bound, to Rome, and there become a prey to wild beasts.”

Never did criminal, condemned to die, manifest such joy on hearing that he was pardoned as did St. Ignatius when he heard the imperial sentence that doomed him to so dreadful a death. He exclaimed, with a loud voice, “I thank Thee, O Lord, for vouchsafing me the happiness of offering my life as a proof of my great love to Thee!” Having kissed the chains which were to deprive him of liberty, he joyfully extended his hands to be shackled. After praying with many tears for the Church, he bade farewell to his flock, consoling them most tenderly, and once more earnestly besought them to remain constant in their faith. Two deacons accompanied him to Rome. But what the holy Bishop suffered in his long journey over land and sea, from the brutality of the soldiers whose prisoner he was, words fail to tell. Neither can the heroic patience which he manifested be described, nor how unceasingly and ardently he longed to become a victim for his faith. 

Whenever he approached a city the Christians, with their Bishops, came to meet him. He received them most affectionately, humbly entreating them to pray that God would give him grace to pass happily through his martyrdom. At Smyrna he was greeted by St. Polycarp, his most intimate friend, who had been a disciple of St. John with him. It will be more easy to imagine than describe the great consolation that these two holy men found in each other. From this city as well as from several other places, the holy Bishop wrote letters to the different churches, giving to all the most pious instructions, and declaring his eagerness to be immolated for his Lord’s sake. He found also in Smyrna several men from Ephesus, who were on their way to Rome, and as they would arrive there before him, he gave them a letter to the Christians living there, in which he most humbly besought them not to supplicate heaven for his life, and thus deprive him of the crown of martyrdom. Thus, in this letter, he again revealed his fervent desire to suffer and die for his God.

At length, after indescribable torments, the holy Bishop arrived at Rome. The faithful came in crowds to meet him, weeping bitterly while they saluted him. But he appeared more cheerful than ever, and, kneeling down in the midst of them, he prayed for the Christian Church, and offered himself as a sacrifice to the Son of the Almighty.

The Roman Book of Martyrs relates further that the holy Bishop was most barbarously tortured in Rome before he was thrown to the lions, but in what these tortures consisted is not known. Incontestible, however, is the fact that, on being brought into the amphitheatre, where innumerable people were present to witness his death, he addressed the multitude, saying that he, as a Christian Bishop, had been brought thither because he longed to suffer and die for Christ. Having said this, he prayed, and earnestly supplicated God not to prevent the wild beasts from destroying him, as had often happened to other Christians. As soon as the roaring of the lions was heard, he cried aloud: “I am the grain of Christ. I shall be ground by the teeth of these wild beasts, and so become the pure bread of Christ!” While he thus spoke they let the lions loose, which fiercely bounded towards the Saint, who while repeating the holy name of Jesus, was torn in pieces. The lions devoured him instantly, leaving only his bones, which were gathered by the faithful and brought to Antioch, where they were received by the Christians with the greatest honors. They were deposited with as much solemnity as circumstances would permit, in a sanctuary devoted to that purpose, and they were held in great honor by all believing in the true Faith.

St. Ignatius desired nothing more ardently than to suffer and die for the sake of Jesus Christ. The source of this desire was the Saint’s adoration of the crucified God, which he derived from contemplating the inconceivable love which moved Jesus to suffer and die for us. Therefore, was he often heard to say, “My love is the crucified God.” Can you likewise say, in sincerity, that the crucified God is your love, or the only object of your devotion? Ah! until now it most certainly has not been thus. A contemptible human being, a short-lived pleasure, a temporal profit, a sinful delight, you have loved more than your Saviour. Oh, shame! Has not Jesus, who loved so much that He suffered death upon the cross for you, deserved to be loved far above everything and beyond everybody? Devote yourself to Him from this hour, and show by your deeds that you love Him. This is done when you remain constant to your crucified God, and when you allow no sin to separate you from Him. Tell me who, at the time the Crucifixion took place, showed by deeds that they loved Christ? Certainly not the heathens, nor the Jews, neither Scribes nor Pharisees, not even the Apostles themselves, one only excepted. For the heathens crucified Christ, the Jews derided and scorned and helped to crucify Him; the Apostles deserted Him–yes, one of them even sold Him, and another denied him! These were no tokens of love. Only St. John, Mary, the Holy Mother, and a few other saintly women, showed by deeds their love for the crucified Christ. They did not leave Him in His hour of bitter trial, and much less did they deride Him, scorn Him, or assist in crucifying Him, as so many others. And just such tokens of love I require of you, especially during the time of the so-called Carnival, as being the time when your Saviour is not only again derided, scorned, and crucified by many sinners, but even, in many places, deserted and denied by His Apostles–that is, by those who, during the year, were zealous in serving Him. Remain, during that period, with your Jesus; do not separate yourself from Him by sin; leave Him not. In this way you can show by your actions that you love Him truly. The thought alone that Christ suffered so much for you should be sufficient to incite you to this. He has so fervently loved you, and showed so plainly His love in deeds: why will you not, in like manner, return His love, and manifest it also in visible deeds? (1)

Image:  Ignatius of Antioch (6)

Research by REGINA Staff


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