St. Ignatius was from Antioch, the capital city of the Roman province of Syria. Little is known about the first part of his life. He was born around the year 35 AD, probably to pagan parents, and he later converted to Christianity. He may have been a disciple of St. John the Evangelist.
St. Peter the apostle presided over the newly formed church of Antioch as its first bishop before he moved to Rome. St. Evodius served as the second bishop, and upon his death in 69 AD, St. Ignatius became the third bishop, and he served for thirty-eight years.
The first portion of his episcopacy was relatively peaceful, but circumstances changed dramatically when the Roman Emperor Trajan came to power in 105. Trajan believed that he had achieved his military successes because of the pagan gods, and because he honored them, he expected others to do likewise. According to a popular legend that is historically unreliable, Trajan made an imperial visit to Antioch, ordered the arrest of St. Ignatius, and personally interrogated him (see Butler’s Lives of the Saints). Because St. Ignatius refused to renounce his faith or to worship pagan gods, he was condemned to death, and Trajan ordered that he be taken to Rome to be thrown to the animals to die.
St. Ignatius was taken to Rome by ship with a military escort of ten soldiers who treated him with cruelty. The ship hugged the coastlines of Asia Minor or Turkey and Greece, and the ship made a number of stops along the way. At each seaport St. Ignatius was warmly greeted by the Christians of the area.
St. Ignatius had extended stays at two seaports, and during these delays he was able to write seven letters. His first four letters were written in Smyrna, and he addressed them to the Christian communities in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome. His last three letters were written in Troas, two which were directed to the Christian communities in Philadelphia and Smyrna, the other to St. Polycarp.
St. Ignatius wrote on a variety of topics and proved to be one of the greatest teachers of the early Church. He declared that “Jesus Christ is our only teacher.” He emphasized the two natures of Jesus, his humanity and divinity, and that he had a real human birth and suffered a real human death, and he repudiated Docetism, a heresy that denied Jesus’ human nature and claimed that he was only divine. He stressed the value of the Eucharist, “the medicine of immortality,” and reflected upon the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption, and salvation.
St. Ignatius also wrote about the character of the Church. He explained that it is both a mystical and hierarchical reality: mystical in that Jesus is truly present in the community of believers, hierarchical in that it is well-ordered and unified under the authority of the bishop. He was the first person to describe the church as “Catholic,” a term he used to refer to all Christians. In his letter to the church of Rome, he acknowledged its place as first among the other churches, and aware of his impending martyrdom, he pleaded with them not to interfere so he would be allowed the grace to die for Christ and witness his faith with his life.
St. Ignatius arrived in Rome on December 20, 107, the last day of the public games, and he was taken directly to the amphitheater where he was devoured by two fierce lions before a large crowd. He is an Apostolic Father, and his name is included in the second martyrology of Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon.