Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred under the Emperor Trajan (98-117), bears remarkable witness to the power of the faith in the early Church.
Many legends and traditions attach to his early life. One holds that as a child Ignatius had been taken into the arms of Jesus and blessed. Another suggests that he had been converted by St John; still another that St Peter and St Paul had ordained his succession as Bishop of Antioch, at the north-eastern end of the Mediterranean.
Certainly, Ignatius held the see for some 40 years from 67 AD. Antioch was then the third largest city in the world after Rome and Alexandria. “It was there,” St Luke tells us, “that the disciples were first called Christians.”
After Ignatius was arrested, the order was given that he should be taken to Rome to be devoured by wild beasts. The spectacle of pious old men being torn to pieces apparently gave especial satisfaction.
On the way to Rome Ignatius became an object of veneration for local Christians. Magnificently undeterred by the ghastly fate in store for him, he set himself to write letters of encouragement.
Seven of these have survived, four composed at Smyrna for the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles and Rome, and another three written from Troas.
True to the title he claimed – Theophorus, or God-bearer – Ignatius insisted that Christ dwelt in every Christian breast. He especially stressed the importance of obedience to ecclesiastical authority; indeed his letter from Troas to the Smyrnaeans contains the first mention of “the Catholic Church”.
“Wherever the bishop appears,” he wrote, “there let the people be, even as wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church.”
To the Christians in Rome he addressed an appeal that they should on no account attempt to save him. “I fear your charity,” he told them, “lest it prejudice me”.
“I shall never have another such opportunity of attaining unto my Lord. Therefore you cannot do me a greater favour than to suffer me to be poured out as a libation to God… I am God’s grain, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.
“Come fire and cross, gashes and rending, breaking of bones and mangling of limbs, the shattering in pieces of my whole body; come all the wicked torments of the Devil upon me, if I may but attain unto Jesus Christ.”
In Rome Ignatius was immediately cast into the arena, and speedily eaten by two lions. Some relics were taken back to Antioch. “You lent him for a season,” St John Chrysostum told the townsmen in the fourth century, “and recovered him as a martyr.”