Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

03 The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius

The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians

For well over two centuries after the death and resurrection of Our Lord, a profession of faith in Him as God and Saviour meant the probability of being put to death.

In about A.D. 35, the deacon Stephen was stoned to death in Jerusalem for proclaiming Jesus as the prophet announced by Moses. He was the first martyr. From then onwards until the second decade of the 300's, persecution, painful death, and torture was the regular, if intermittent lot of Christians. The seasons for this are not difficult to grasp.

Christianity was a new religion, which had universal appeal. It was not linked to any one race or political system. Thus it became suspect as an enemy of every kind of government, especially those where the king or emperor was worshipped as a god. For some time Christianity was thought to be a Jewish sect and so it found shelter in the Roman Empire under the privileges accorded the Jews.

But as the distinction between Jew and Gentile became clear, accusations against Christians became more and more frequent. They were called atheists -- the worst of all crimes -- because they rejected the emperor and the other gods; they were licentious and superstitious because of their Eucharistic banquets and unnatural contempt of death; they were also the cause of public calamities, of plagues, floods, famine and attacks by barbarians. In a word, most Romans felt towards them both fear and contempt.

The historian Paulus Orosius, writing in the early 400's, compiled a list of ten long and difficult persecutions -- the figure ten being, in the mind of Orosius, a parallel with the ten plagues of Egypt.

The first persecution began at Rome in the year A.D. 64 when the Emperor Nero used Christians as scapegoats for the great fire. Some were thrown to mad dogs, others crucified, others yet burned as torches in the Emperor's gardens. The tenth and last was finder the Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305), who ordered that all churches be destroyed, and the Scriptures burned. Christians who persevered in witness to their belief were put to death.

It was during the third persecution, in the reign of Caesar Trajan, that the old bishop Ignatius of Antioch gave most poignant expression to the theology and spirituality of martyrdom.

A Syrian who was a convert from paganism, Ignatius was one of the earliest bishops of Antioch, perhaps the second after St. Peter. He is known as one of the "Apostolic Fathers," that is, a student or hearer of the Apostles, who in his own person embodied the living connection with the very first generation of Christians.

About the year A.D. 110, he was arrested in Antioch and condemned to be thrown to the wild beasts in the forum at Rome. On his journey to martyrdom from Antioch to Rome under a guard of ten soldiers, he wrote seven long letters of surpassing beauty. And it is in these, read and re-read in the Christian community for generations to come, that his message and example shine forth.

Ignatius was passionately devoted to the Eucharist, which he linked to his own vocation as a bishop, to preach the gospel and multiply the Christian Church. "Take care to use one Eucharist," he wrote, "for there is one flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His blood, and one altar as there is one bishop, assisted by the priests and the deacons . Wherever the bishop is, there let the people be, for there is the Catholic Church."

Jesus Christ Our Lord had said, "Unless the grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest." Ignatius knew that his death would bring to the young and growing Body of Christ a new harvest of Christians.

As he arrived in Rome he found prominent Christians interceding for him, or trying to use political influence with pagan authorities to prevent his martyrdom. He pleaded with them to stop. "I am the wheat of God," he insisted, "and I must he ground by the teeth of wild beasts to become the pure bread of Christ." Fearlessly, with deep conviction, he went to the forum.

For 200 years afterwards, it was the example and doctrine of Ignatius of Antioch in his moment of death that gave courage and inspiration to all Christians. He had shown the martyrs how and why to die. So Christians increased in numbers and multiplied, yielding a rich harvest.

    Return to Table of Contents