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Saint of the East: St. Ignatius of Antioch

A Syrian writer who first coined the term “Catholic Church” is martyred for his contributions.

The first writer to use the term, “Catholic Church,” Ignatius of Antioch was born evidently in Syria around the year 50, and did not become a Christian until late in life. One of the earliest bishops of Antioch, Ignatius referred to himself as Theophorus, the Godbearer. He was martyred – as he predicted he would be – during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan in the year 110 by being thrown to wild beasts in an arena.

While traveling before his martyrdom, Ignatius wrote seven letters which have become important sources of information about the structure of the early Church, showing it to be very similar to the hierarchical Church of today.

In his first three letters, which were written to the Christian communities at Ephesus, Magnesia, and Trallia, Ignatius stresses the position of the bishop as the center of the Christian group. His fourth letter was written to the Romans and indicates his desire to become a martyr. In it he refers to himself in terms reminding one of the Eucharist which he loved, “I am the wheat of God; and I must be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, to become the pure bread of Christ.”

The last three letters before his death were written to the Philadelphians, the Smyrnians and to Polycarp thanking them for their kindness toward him. In the letter to the Smyrnians, Ignatius makes an explicit Eucharistic reference, “…the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins…”

All of Ignatius’ writings warn Christians of the heresies of the day, and stress the importance of charity, especially toward “the widow and the orphan, the oppressed, the prisoner as well as the freeman, the hungry and the thirsty.” (Smyrnians)

His feast is celebrated Feb. 1.

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