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St. Ignatius championed belief in the True Presence

A recent Pew Research study found that only 31% of American Catholics believe in the Church’s teaching that the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Jesus and not just a symbol. That news would have completely flabbergasted a saint whose feast we celebrate on Oct. 17, St. Ignatius of Antioch.

Antioch was the first Christian city in history. Abandoned now, it lends its name to the Turkish city of Antakya, very near Syria. We know that St. Peter was the bishop of Antioch for a time before he left for Rome and was succeeded by St. Evodius.

We are not sure when St. Ignatius was born, but we know that he was a convert to Christianity and that he was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. He represents, then, the first generation of Christians after the death of the last apostle and the writing of the last book of the Bible.

He was considered a holy man and so, according to some historians of the early church, he was appointed by St. Peter and St. Paul to become the third bishop of Antioch. Ignatius would hold this office for 40 years, during which time there were on-and-off persecutions of Christians.

During the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117), Ignatius was arrested and charged with the crime of refusing to recognize the gods of Rome. He was ordered to be taken by ship along the coasts of southern Turkey and Greece all the way to Rome to be devoured by animals for the amusement of the Roman people.

Accompanied by 10 Roman soldiers who, according to Ignatius, treated him severely, they stopped in a few places and Ignatius sent off letters to different churches. We have seven of those letters today, and in them he constantly emphasized the importance of church authority and Eucharistic doctrine.

To the Philadelphians he wrote, “Be careful, then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar, just as there is one bishop along with the presbytery and the deacons.”

To the Smyrneans he wrote that they should avoid “schism” and be faithful to their bishop. “You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop or by someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” This is the first instance in recorded history of the use of the name “Catholic Church.”

It is clear from these letters that for St. Ignatius, being faithful to the bishop and to the Eucharist were the two main pillars of what it meant to be a Christian and that they leaned on each other. In fact, he wrote to the Romans that “I am God’s grain and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

St. Ignatius, who was indeed martyred in the Colosseum in Rome, died on Oct. 17 in the year 107. His few remains were brought back to Antioch. He still stands as a model bishop who sacrificed himself for his people and who insisted on right doctrine and one, unifying Eucharist. This is because, as he no doubt learned from St. John, the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus and through it we are all one body. May all Catholics come to remember that again.