St. Ignatius was born in Syria in the first century, and is said to have received personal instruction in his faith from the apostle St. John. He became the bishop of Antioch around the year 70, taking over the church that had been led by St. Peter before he went to Rome.
Antioch was a major city in the Roman Empire, and it was also the place where the first of Jesus’s followers were called “Christians.” While Ignatius was bishop, the city’s Christians faced extreme persecution. Roman Emperor Domitian proclaimed himself divine, calling himself “Lord and God.” Anyone who refused to recognize him as divine could be put to death, but Ignatius inspired many Christians with his courage. Other emperors followed with similar persecutions.
During the reign of Emperor Trajan, Ignatius was sentenced to death in Rome for his refusal to stop practicing his faith. While he was traveling to Rome, he wrote seven letters to local churches and bishop Polycarp, stressing the importance of maintaining their faith and avoiding falling into heresy. These letters are the first documents to refer to the Church as “Catholic,” from the Greek word for universal.
Ignatius wrote that he was happy to die as a martyr, to be one with God in eternal life. He was mauled to death by lions in Rome’s Flavian Amphitheater. His bones were venerated soon after, in recognition of his sainthood.