Our Most Important Link to the Early Church

Do you want to know what the Apostles taught? Then read the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch!

One cannot underestimate the importance of St. Ignatius of Antioch as a vital historical link in the fabric of the Early Church. He was the very first person on record to call the Church the ‘catholic Church’ (catholic=katholikos=universal). His special status and the fact that his writings survived are key to his importance as that vital historical link. With respect to present day Christian evangelization, St. Ignatius of Antioch (50-107 A.D.) is the most important saint in the Church. This is because some claim that our Church became corrupt early on, and St. Ignatius proves them wrong! This is where his importance lies.

A staunch Non-Denominational Christian friend of mine gave me a lot of trouble in my efforts to present the Catholic Christian Truth to him. Nothing seemed to register with him until I came to speak of St. Ignatius. After a pensive pause and with an altered non-combative tone (how sincere was that stance, I do not know), he said to me, “How is the Church of our Lord linked to the Catholic Church of St. Ignatius?” I told him, “She is one and the same!” It is just that the name ‘Catholic’ came afterwards. And, I proceeded to illustrate my point, basing my information (today) mostly on data provided by the Catholic Encyclopedia, under ‘Ignatius of Antioch, Saint’ (, on the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and on his writings:

Saint Ignatius was born in Syria around 50 A.D. and died a martyr in Rome in 107 A.D. He was appointed to the See of Antioch by St. Peter, the Head Apostle, and, along with his friend St. Polycarp (martyred in 155 A.D.), Bishop of Smyrna, were disciples of St. John, the Apostle, the Beloved Disciple, who reclined his head on the Lord’s chest at the Last Supper (John 13:23-25). St. Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch for some 40 years, and he and St. John knew each other for a third of a century!

The Catholic Encyclopedia says this about St. Ignatius: “All the sterling qualities of ideal pastor and a true soldier of Christ were possessed by the Bishop of Antioch in a preeminent degree. Accordingly, when the storm of the persecution of Domitian broke in its full fury upon the Christians of Syria, it found their faithful leader prepared and watchful. He was unremitting in his vigilance and tireless in his efforts to inspire hope and to strengthen the weaklings of his flock against the terrors of the persecution.”

Later on, Emperor Trajan, upon his victory over the Scythians and Dacians, decreed while sojourning in Antioch that Christians are to offer sacrifice to the gods, along with all the rest of the people, and threatened persecution. Bishop Ignatius was alert and tried by all means to thwart the Emperor’s plans. His success did not remain a secret for long and the Emperor ordered him to be chained and taken to Rome to be fed to the wild beasts.

Of the great trials he endured, Ignatius writes, “From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated.”

His trajectory on this long trek was by sea to Southern Asia Minor (Turkey), and then by land. “At Laodicea, on the River Lycus, where a choice of routes presented itself, his guards selected the more northerly, which brought the prospective martyr through Philadelphia and Sardis, and finally to Smyrna, where Polycarp, his fellow-disciple in the school of St. John, was bishop. The stay at Smyrna, which was a protracted one, gave the representatives of the various Christian communities in Asia Minor an opportunity of greeting the illustrious prisoner, and offering him the homage of the Churches they represented. From the congregations of Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, deputations came to comfort him. To each of these Christian communities he addressed letters from Smyrna, exhorting them to obedience to their respective bishops, and warning them to avoid the contamination of heresy. These letters are redolent with the spirit of Christian charity, apostolic zeal, and pastoral solicitude. While still there he wrote also to the Christians of Rome, begging them to do nothing to deprive him of the opportunity of martyrdom.” He reached Rome after a protracted voyage by land and sea, and was promptly martyred in 107 A.D.

Of course, this biography is very interesting. Providence would have it that the soldiers at one point in their trek, while in present day Asia Minor (Turkey), came across a fork in the road and decided to travel the northern route, thus taking St. Ignatius through the territory previously traveled by Paul. He stayed with his friend, St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, for a good while and all the churches sent delegates to honor him and bid him farewell on his journey to martyrdom and on to eternal life with the Lord. It was a journey of courage and love and of enlightenment for all.

“The occasion of St. Ignatius’ trip to Rome proved to be a unifying event for all of the early Churches. Through his letters, he confirmed the hierarchy of bishop, priest, and deacon for the early Churches, the pattern which still exists today [The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1593, quotes St. Ignatius in his Letter to Tralles 3:1, as saying: without the bishop, presbyters, and deacons, one cannot speak of the Church]. His letters are treasures of the Christian faith.” ( ).

On his way, St. Ignatius wrote a total of seven letters: one each to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and one to his friend St. Polycarp (d. 155 A.D.), Bishop of Smyrna. These letters remind us of the seven letters to the seven churches which the Lord revealed to St. John in Revelation 2, and 3.

All is well and good, but, the prime importance of St. Ignatius lies in six factors, no doubt engineered by God:
1. St. Ignatius was the disciple of John, the beloved of Jesus, our Lord;
2. St. Ignatius was ordained Bishop of Antioch by Peter, the Rock on which our Lord built His Church;
3. St. Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch for some 40 years and lived concurrently with the Apostle John for more than a third of a century;
4. Therefore, due to his proximity to the Apostles, we can say that he knew what he was talking about. This is why we say that his words are, in effect, the Gospel Truth!
5. St. Ignatius wrote seven letters on his journey to martyrdom; and,
6. These seven letters survived! They are Apologetics masterpieces. He explained things where they needed to be explained. So, now we have a microscope or a telescope into the Early Church.

To recapitulate, in his writings, St. Ignatius:
1. Was the first on record to call the Church the catholic Church;
2. Spoke of the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
3. Spoke of the hierarchal structure of the Church;
4. Spoke of the status and esteem that the faithful are to have for their bishop;
5. Spoke about schisms and those who produce them;
6. Spoke about the return to the unity of the faith by those who follow perpetrators of schisms; and,
7. Spoke about the Eucharist.

This is where things become interesting; getting a glimpse of the dawn of Christianity, and how the Apostles understood things explained to them by the Holy Spirit as per the Lord’s instructions:

John 16: 12 “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. 13 But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.”

In writing the prominent quotes cited further below, St. Ignatius was confirming the truths God taught, which the Apostles handed down to their disciples parallel to the rules Paul set forth before Timothy:

2 Timothy 1: 13 Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit

2 Timothy 2: 2 And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.

In the first quote, in verse 14, notice that the Holy Spirit is the One who guards this rich trust in the minds of those who are to teach. This is how Tradition (with a capital ‘T’), or the Sacred Oral Word, which was before the Written Word, was preserved from error, supernaturally, then as now. Now, on to St. Ignatius. This is what he had to say from what he was taught by John:

St. Ignatius of Antioch: “Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church.”
Letter to the Smyrnians (8:1-2)

St. Ignatius of Antioch: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again,”
Letter to the Smyrnians (7:1)

St. Ignatius of Antioch: “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop, and as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ.
Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the Passion of Christ.” Letter to the Philadelphians (3:2)

St. Ignatius of Antioch: “Mary’s virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord’s death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God’s silence.” Letter to the Ephesians (19:1)

John Henry Cardinal Newman, himself a convert to Catholicism, said something quite true: “To become deep in history is to cease to be Protestant, and, to cease to be deep in history is to become Protestant.” Had Martin Luther been versed in history and versed on the unique status of St. Ignatius, he would not have started the Reformation (from without)! He would have realized that as an Augustinian monk in the Catholic Church, he was in the Church that Jesus Christ instituted, and his obedience is therefore required. He would never have left.

So, to my friend, I explained (not as clearly as now) that since Ignatius was in the Catholic Church, saying what he said in the foregoing, and since he was appointed to this position in the Church by Peter, and since he had many years in common with his mentor John (a third of a century!), then, he knew what he was talking about, and his words are part of the Truth of the Gospel as he learned it from St. John!

Since St. Ignatius knew what he was talking about, read his sayings above and believe in the Eucharist, that it is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Believe what he wrote about those who cause schisms in the Church and believe about those who return to the unity of the Church and act on those beliefs. Believe what he says about the Virgin birth and about the Blessed Virgin Mary and about hierarchy in the Church, as depicted in these paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

CCC 496: From the first formulations of her faith, the Church has confessed that Jesus was conceived solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, affirming also the corporeal aspect of this event: Jesus was conceived “by the Holy Spirit without human seed”. The Fathers see in the virginal conception the sign that it truly was the Son of God who came in a humanity like our own. Thus St. Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the second century says:

You are firmly convinced about our Lord, who is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born of a virgin,. . . he was truly nailed to a tree for us in his flesh under Pontius Pilate. . . he truly suffered, as he is also truly risen.

CCC 498: People are sometimes troubled by the silence of St. Mark’s Gospel and the New Testament Epistles about Jesus’ virginal conception. Some might wonder if we were merely dealing with legends or theological constructs not claiming to be history. To this we must respond: Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike; so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age. The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the “connection of these mysteries with one another” in the totality of Christ’s mysteries, from his Incarnation to his Passover. St. Ignatius of Antioch already bears witness to this connection: “Mary’s virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord’s death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God’s silence.”

CCC 1549: Through the ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers. In the beautiful expression of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop is typos tou Patros: he is like the living image of God the Father.

CCC 1593: Since the beginning, the ordained ministry has been conferred and exercised in three degrees: that of bishops, that of presbyters, and that of deacons. The ministries conferred by ordination are irreplaceable for the organic structure of the Church: without the bishop, presbyters, and deacons, one cannot speak of the Church (cf. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Trall. 3, 1).

He pretty well covered it all. Do you want to know more about the Church? Then, read all his seven letters. They survived, through God’s providential election! A good address for you would be the website of the renowned historical theologian, author and TV personality, Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio:

So now, we can say that as Catholics, we are in the Church that Jesus Christ our Lord instituted. We can also say that both Peter and John were in the Catholic Church, even before it was called so; as similarly, Peter was the first Pope, even before the term had been put into use later for his successors; as similarly Stephen, who was martyred very early on (Acts 7:60), is considered Christian, even though the term was first put into use in Antioch after his death (Acts 11:26). By the same token, Christ is both Christian and Catholic! The Very First!!

Now, all that Catholics need to do is behave as people worthy of this privilege, and all other Christians need to do is drop everything and come home and help rejuvenate Catholics!

In conclusion, we can say that the Catholic Church is not a denomination, and we are not a sect. We are the Church that Jesus Christ instituted and He instituted no other Church (Matthew 16:18 is in the singular)! We are not boasting here, rather, stating a fact. We have no reason to boast. In fact, humility is the order of the day, since we are not living up to our calling as we should.

Actually, the Catholic Church is composed of 23 Churches: One Roman Catholic and 22 Eastern Catholic Churches. These 23 Churches can be either patriarchal or metropolitan or independent with a head. For every Eastern Catholic Church, there is an Orthodox counterpart, except for the Maronite Church. It never split with Rome. There are some differences between all of them where it pertains to the Liturgy itself. There are more prayers in the Eastern Liturgy, because, for instructional purposes, there is more theology in the Liturgy. Odd things for Roman Catholics are that in the Eastern Churches, the posture of reverence is standing. There is no kneeling, throughout. Communion is by intinction; never by hand. Whatever Rite the Mass belongs to, follow its rules; in Eastern Masses, stand or sit as the Liturgy specifies; in a Roman Catholic Mass, sit, stand, kneel, as specified in the Missal.


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