Life of St. Ignatius of Antioch
By: Fr. Michael E. Habib
ST. IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH, WHO IS CALLED THEOPHORUS, was the third bishop to preside over the Church of Antioch. St. Ignatius was not often in the public eye during the first part of his life, and therefore, nothing was recorded about his life until he was preparing to leave his Church in Antioch to go to Rome.
Emperor Trajan (Emperor 98-117), while in Antioch, instructed St. Ignatius to offer sacrifices to the idols, and in return St. Ignatius would be given the rank of senator for making the sacrifice. Despite the emperor’s many threats, St. Ignatius would not do that, and, therefore, he was sentenced to death. He was shackled in iron chains and taken by 10 soldiers to Rome where he was thrown to the lions in the arena.
During his journey from Antioch to Rome (c. 105 – c. 106), St. Ignatius wrote all of his seven famous epistles to the Churches in Rome and Asia Minor. At one point, during the journey, they reached a fork in the road somewhere in Asia Minor, and the soldiers decided that they would take the northern route through Philadelphia to Smyrna. The Churches along the southern route were bypassed. When the route was determined, messengers were sent to the Churches along the southern route informing them of his itinerary. Each Church that was bypassed sent delegations to meet him in Smyrna. From Smyrna, out of gratitude for the support the Churches were showing, he wrote epistles to the Ephesians, Magnesians, and Trallians that he sent back with their delegations. He also wrote an epistle to the Romans, which he sent ahead telling them that he would be arriving in the near future.
After leaving Smyrna, St. Ignatius and the soldiers stopped in Troas. There, St. Ignatius received word that peace had been brought back to the Church of Antioch, something that St. Ignatius was concerned about since leaving Antioch. Hearing the good news, he wrote to the Churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna, which he had visited on the way, and also wrote an epistle addressed to his friend, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna.
Before he could write any more epistles, the soldiers hurried him to Neapolis, and then to Philippi, where he was received with open arms at the Church. That was the last place that St. Ignatius was seen. In the year 106, St. Ignatius was torn apart and consumed by the lions in Rome. Only his larger bones and his heart remained unconsumed. Martyrdom was something that St. Ignatius considered to be the crowning achievement in his life.
St. Ignatius’ epistle to the Romans stands out from all others because of his focus on his impending martyrdom. The Romans were trying to save St. Ignatius from dying, but in his epistle he begs them to desist and allow him to be martyred, for he considered it a great reward to be able to die for the Lord: "I write to all the churches, and I bid all men know, that of my own free will I die for God, unless ye should hinder me. I exhort you, by not an unseasonable kindness to me. Let me be given to the wild beasts, for through them I can attain unto God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread [of Christ]. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my sepulcher and may leave no part of my body behind, so that I may not, when I am fallen asleep, be burdensome to anyone. Then shall I be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world shall not so much as see my body. Supplicate the Lord for me, that through these instruments I may be found a sacrifice to God. I do not enjoin you, as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles, I am a convict; they were free, but I am a slave to this very hour. Yet if I shall suffer, then am I a freed-man of Jesus Christ, and I shall rise free in Him. Now I am learning in my bonds to put away every desire” (Romans 4).
His other epistles address the importance of protecting the Church against heresy, the Church’s unity with the bishop, and the bishop’s authority in the Church. St. Ignatius points out the connection between these three themes showing that heresy is separation from the bishop, who protects the Church, and is the symbol of unity in the Church.
With the authoring of his seven epistles, St. Ignatius of Antioch effectively established the ecclesiastical model that we use in the Church today.