DOB: Approx. 69 A.D.
Died: Approx. February, 155 A.D.
Feast Day: 23 February
Patron: those suffering of earaches
We frequently imagine what it might have been like to sit at the feet of our Lord and later the apostles; to have witnessed the great miracles of Jesus and to have listened to the powerful preaching of His successors. While that is many centuries removed for us believers living today, for early Christians like St. Polycarp, that was normal.
Polycarp, whose name in Greek means many fruits, may have earned that title by the way he lived out the command of Christ, “I have appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn. 15: 16b). And bear fruit he did! Being so far back, there is not consistency in dating all of the earliest milestones in Polycarp’s life, but it is widely held that he died in the year 155 at the age of 86. Some historians venture a guess that the Apostle John made his way from Palestine to Asia Minor (modern day Turkey and Greece) soon after Polycarp would have been born. Having carried on the Christian community established by St. Paul there, the Beloved Disciple was Polycarp’s direct link to his Christian faith.
Forsaking his natural born, pagan roots, Polycarp is believed to have received baptism as a youth, never having parted from his mentor and spiritual father, John the Evangelist, until he himself ordained Polycarp as Bishop of Smyrna before being exiled to the island of Patmos. Bishop Polycarp would likely have been no more than 25 years old at this time.
Bear in mind that it was on the island of Patmos that St. John received the apocalyptic visions which are now known as the last book of the New Testament: the book of Revelation. Contained within that vision seven ‘letters’, or messages, are addressed to the seven prominent church communities of that time. The leader of the Christian community in Smyrna then, about whom St. John received this message, was Polycarp. In a true testimony to his sanctity and zeal, it must be observed that the Church of Smyrna is the only one not to receive a rebuke from the Lord but only commendation for their embrace of poverty and their preparedness to suffer in defence of the Faith- even unto martyrdom. Of all the people who would praise Polycarp in his day, the recorded praise of Christ Himself contained in Sacred Scripture for all of time obviously ranks the highest!
Over the course of his very long episcopal ministry, Polycarp would travel extensively in the region, including in his apostolic work not only the governance of the local church of which he was shepherd, but also the care of other surrounding churches. With the death of St. John and the end of all public revelation, Polycarp became something of the next link to the eyewitnesses of the Lord. St. Irenaeus, himself a venerable early Church Father, recounts his own experience listening to Bishop Polycarp preach. In his letter to Florinus he recounts,
I could tell you the place where the blessed Polycarp sat to preach the Word of God. It is yet present to my mind with what gravity he everywhere came in and went out; what was the sanctity of his deportment, the majesty of his countenance; and what were his holy exhortations to the people. I seem to hear him now relate how he conversed with John and many others who had seen Jesus Christ, the words he had heard from their mouths.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was the second successor to St. Peter in that early, Apostolic see, was a contemporary of Polycarp, to whom he addressed one of his letters that continues to serve as a portal to this day of the life of the Church of antiquity. It is reported by some that as Ignatius was being led to Rome where he would face his martyrdom, passing through the city of Smyrna, Polycarp was able to kiss his chains; a gesture which meant much to them both.
Although beloved by many, Polycarp was no stranger to dissension and some abuse. During one of his trips to Rome he directly confronted the proponent of an insidious, dualistic heresy of that time named after its founder, Marcion, who proposed that the God of Jesus Christ was the “good God” and was different from the ‘god of the Jews’ of the Old Testament who was evil. Therefore, Jesus was the son of the good God- but not divine in Himself. Knowing Polycarp’s strong influence in the broader Christian community, he once approached him demanding, “Recognize us, Polycarp”, to which the blessed bishop fired back, “I recognize you, yes, for I recognize a son of Satan!”
At the same time, on that very trip to Rome, Polycarp also went to confront the Pope, Anicetus, who was said to be criticizing the diverging seasons when Christians of the East had been observing Easter from the Christians of the West. Polycarp, in all humility and respect for the Bishop of Rome, contended that theirs in the East was truly authentic and shouldn’t be made to change. While their argument resulted in no resolution of the matter, as a testament to Pope Anicetus’ respect for Bishop Polycarp, he insisted that He offer Mass in his own papal chapel.
The last time he visited Rome was to visit his own martyrdom. With little warning that he was to be arrested, he fled to the countryside where the faithful hoped to successfully shelter him from the Roman guards. After the despicable torture of two young boys, they found him in short order. To their surprise, though, the supposed atheist and revolutionary whom they were coming to arrest was a kindly, 86 year old man. He bargained with them by first cooking them a meal that he would gladly accompany them back to the Colosseum so long as they let him pray while they ate their dinner. They complied.
He was drug into the arena where the proconsul, embarrassed to torture and execute such a frail old man, begged Polycarp to simply denounce “the atheists” which was the ironic charge levelled against his fellow Christians. One recalls the scene of the brave Jewish elder, Eleazar, during the Maccabean revolt who was secretly offered lawful flesh to taste so that it would appear he had conceded to eating swine and could therefore be spared.
“Such pretence is not worthy of our time of life,’ he said, ‘for many of the young might suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year had gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretence, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they would be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. Even if for the present I would avoid the punishment of mortals, yet whether I live or die I will not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws. When he had said this, he went at once to the rack” (2 Mac 6: 24-28).
As they lit the pyre on which he was to be burned, blessed Polycarp raised his eyes and his voice to heaven and prayed,
“Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in your presence, as you have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.”
It was reported by the eyewitness accounts that as the flames grew up around them, they did not consume him but rather, enveloped him, as though he were being baked like a golden loaf of bread. After some time, when it became clear that the flames would not destroy him, a soldier pierced him with a lance and the blood which poured forth extinguished all the flames.
In this age of relentless martyrdom which still plagues the Church, we must be fortified by the both gentle and brave examples of saints like Polycarp who, having genuinely encountered the Lord through the preaching of the elders, persevered in faithfulness to the end.