St Ignatius of Antioch is one of the most important saints of any period of Church history, from both a spiritual and a historical perspective.
He was tremendously important in the Maronite tradition, for example, there is a Maronite Eucharistic Liturgy of St Ignatius of Antioch, although it has not yet been translated out of Syriac! While his reputation has suffered because of the Latinisation of the Maronite Church, it is time to look at him with fresh eyes.
It is often forgotten just how early St Ignatius was, and therefore, how important a witness he is to the life of the church in the time of the apostles, and to their teaching. He died the death of a martyr during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. No one knows the date of his birth, but he was probably a disciple of St John the Apostle, and he did become the third bishop of Antioch (the first was St Peter, the second was St Evodios). Since St Evodius died in about 66, then our saint cannot have been young in that year, and it would be surprising if he had not also known St Peter.
While he was being taken to Rome for martyrdom, he wrote seven letters. These show that spiritually, he brought a mystical intensity to the faith. He described God, the Church and all its members as being related like music, which needs many voices and instruments to build up its harmony, and like a building, being erected only in accordance with a plan and after the labour of numerous people employing diverse skills. He was also granted prophetic gifts, and used these in confirming the churches in the true faith.
Historically, he gives evidence that the church of the apostles was identical to the Catholic Church we know today in some very central matters, such as our understanding of the Eucharist and authority within the Church. This appears very plainly from St Ignatius’ letters. To give but one example, in chapter 8 of his letter to the church at Smyrna, he wrote:
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast (i.e. the Eucharist); but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.”
Incidentally, this is the first use of the phrase “Catholic Church” which has survived!
Fr Yuhanna Azize