Today's saint is a person of such towering moral and spiritual stature, it would be easy to suspect he was just the victim of hyperbolic hagiography. Except that we have his own writings to prove that his reputation is warranted. St. Ignatius of Antioch, successor of St. Peter in the ancient Church of Antioch, was executed in Rome around the year 107. That puts him in the ranks of the "Apostolic Fathers," men who received the faith within a generation of the Apostles themselves. His writings not only testify to a Church structure so developed that it makes some people nervous, but they also have a strong Eucharistic focus. You could say that Ignatius' writings, especially his letter to the Romans, offer a Eucharistic spirituality of martyrdom.
It was Ignatius who wrote en route to presumed martyrdom, to make sure that the Christians of Rome didn't show him any "untimely kindness" by attempting to intervene on his behalf. "I am the wheat of Christ," he famously wrote, "to be ground by the teeth of beasts to become Christ's pure bread."
For years, I have read this section of Ignatius to the Romans with a sense of awe for the man's colossal faith and courage. Today, in rereading it, I was suddenly struck by the weakness he does not mask. As if foreseeing just how far that weakness could take him, he wrote to establish his position: "Even if, when the time comes, I should beg you to help me, do not do it. Believe what I am writing now, because this is my true will." He admits to temptation, to fear, to a realistic sense of "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." He asks for prayers.
Tomorrow will be the feast of St. Luke, and after that, the North American Martyrs, men on a par with St. Ignatius. But Ignatius was of that first generation of martyrs: people who followed Jesus to the cross, whatever shape that cross took in their lives. These are the ones who established the "pattern" and the spirituality of martyrdom. And Ignatius just may be their finest witness.