To have read his letters is to have met a giant of Christianity, an intrepid athlete of Christ and a warrior of the Faith. A great lover, he loved his spiritual sons and daughters unto the end. He showed this by being true to his chief priestly duty, by handing on to them what he himself had received (see 1 Cor 11:23). Well he understood that the first duty of the bishop and priest is to loyally transmit the traditum, the great Tradition constituted by the truths of divine revelation present in the sacred scriptures and in the other non-written sources, notably the sacred liturgy.
To achieve this he tirelessly protected them from the poison of rampant heresies; prayed for them; offered up his own lifeblood for their salvation. Fearless in the face of the powerful Roman empire, he turned his journey to execution, probably amid the savage beasts of the Colosseum, into a pilgrimage to the threshold of eternal life.
From him Ignatians aspire to learn that enthusiastic, wholehearted, and intimately personal love for Jesus Christ, The Only Way, The Only Truth and The Only Life. Like him they want to be lovers of the Church seeing it as Christ’s Mystical Body; with him they want to build up that Body to the point of being ready to make up in our flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church (Col 1:24).
Ignatians look to St. Ignatius of Antioch as a man who embodied their motto, The Truth of Christ Urges Us! This giant among the first Christians well knew that Truth and Love coincide in Christ and that to be Christian is to be on fire for the Truth who is Love, the salvific love who alone can guarantee man’s fulfillment eternally. On his way to martyrdom, Ignatius wrote to the Romans: “Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there [Heaven] can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on”.
The word ‘truth’ for Ignatius is a word that hits you with the force of an Atlantic wind; it breathes fire; it inspires with an energetic “defense of the Faith”, one that Ignatius of Loyola identified as the purpose of his Society. Truth about man’s salvation is to be found in ‘the catholic Church’ (Letter to the Smyrnaeans), for in Ignatius’s writings we find the first extant use of the expression, “Catholic Church”. In the great Syrian, Ignatians see embodied the conviction that the truth of Christ is to be found in all its majesty and integrity within the One Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church founded on the Rock of Peter and his successors. His life was one long combat for orthodoxy and orthopraxy, without concessions, compromises, or ambiguities. Ignatius of Antioch also shows the coherence of a man who, on recognizing that Catholicism is true, affirms clearly that non-Catholicism is false; that if something is true then it is worth fighting for; that condemnation of heresy is the other side of the coin of love for the Faith.
Letter after letter of the Syrian bishop testifies to the central doctrines (dogmas) of the Church, constituting a powerful link between the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church. He, who had listened to St. John the beloved disciple of Our Lord Jesus Christ and who had been ordained by St. Peter as his successor at Antioch, drank the pure truth of eternal salvation at its fountain-head. Cardinal Newman in his “The Theology of the Seven Epistles of St. Ignatius”, in Historical Sketches, notes that “the whole system of Catholic doctrine may be discovered, at least in outline, not to say in parts filled up, in the course of his seven epistles”. Among the Catholic truths to be found in his letters are the following:
- Jesus Christ is God Incarnate.
- There is only one Church, divinely founded by Christ.
- The Church is “catholic”, holy, and infallible.
- Its purpose is one: the salvation of souls.
- He who culpably breaks with the Church separates himself from God.
- The sacred orders of the episcopacy, the priesthood, and the diaconate were instituted by Christ.
- The virtue of virginity and the religious character of marriage.
- The primacy of the See of Rome.