St. Ignatius of Antioch: First to Call the Church “Catholic”

Ignatius_of_Antioch_2Today’s saint, St. Ignatius of Antioch, is incredibly important for our Church. He converted to Christianity at an early age, and became a disciple of St. John the Apostle. After learning from John the ways of the Gospel, he became the third bishop of Antioch in Syria, which meant that he was also the second successor to St. Peter from his time in Antioch. Between St. John and St. Peter, talk about big sandals to fill! Still, St. Ignatius did well, and was a good and holy pastor, preparing his people well for the persecutions by inspiring them to devotion, prayer, and fasting.

Now, when you’re the bishop of an important place like Antioch, you’re going to attract a lot of attention, some of it unwanted. After helping his people through the persecutions of Domitian, Ignatius himself was arrested under the next wave of persecutions under Trajan. But it was during his travelling to Rome for trial that he provided some of his most important work.

St. Ignatius spent the time in transit to Rome writing letters to the various Churches, and he provided a number of important themes. His first notable contribution was that he was the first to use the term “Catholic” with reference to the Church. He used it to describe the Church as “universal” in two ways. First, the Church is universal in that it embraces people of all cultures and backgrounds. When we are Catholic, we extend the love of neighbor to all, just as Christ teaches us. But Ignatius also says the Church is universal in that it embraces all that Christ has revealed to us in our Scripture and Tradition. We can’t pick and choose what elements of Christianity we want to accept. If that were the case, we would be Gnostics, one of the very groups St. Ignatius fought so hard to defend the Church against!

The second notable contribution from St. Ignatius’s letters was his understanding of the Eucharist. Sometimes we can think that our belief of the Eucharist as the Body of Christ was some later development, and that early Christians didn’t think this way. But even in the 1st century, Ignatius was displaying a very strong belief of the Real Presence of Jesus in the host – not as a symbol or an idea, but the belief that Jesus truly is present in the Eucharist. Even this early, St. Ignatius understood that the Eucharist was a sacrifice connected to the Cross. This might not seem like a big deal, but it really is! Even 60 years after Jesus, Christians believed and professed many of the same things we do today!

St. Ignatius took that belief of the Eucharist to his martyrdom. He saw his life as a sacrifice – his way of living out the Eucharist for the good of the Church. Even as he was marched into the Coliseum to be eaten by wild beasts for the pleasure of the crowds, those words from his letter to the church in Rome returned: “I am God’s wheat, and I must be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius’s followers brought his body back to Antioch, where they buried him in a tomb outside the city. In the 600’s, Islam began to dominate the region culturally and in some cases, militarily, and so the relics of St. Ignatius were brought back to the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, which stands only about a mile from the spot of his martyrdom in the Coliseum. His relics are still present for veneration today, and serve as a reminder that all of us are called to live out the Eucharist each day!