(Died c. 155)
Contemporary Christians spoke with reverence of St. Polycarp not only because of his own venerability, but because he had been a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Indeed, some have said that he was named bishop of Smyrna by the beloved disciple.
As bishop, Polycarp is known for two things in particular. First, he wrote an epistle to the Christians of Philippi around 110 to accompany copies of the letters that St. Ignatius of Antioch had written to several dioceses when en route to martyrdom in Rome. In this covering letter, Polycarp defended to the Philippians the truth of the Incarnation; he drew a picture of the ideal priest, he urged almsgiving, and he commended to their prayers the heads of nations.
Secondly, Polycarp himself journeyed to Rome in 155 to discuss with Pope Anicetus certain ecclesiastical matters, especially the manner of figuring the date of Easter. The East and Rome had different ways of determining it. The bishop of Smyrna was not persuaded to abandon the Eastern calendar, which he had from St. John. Nevertheless, the bishops of Rome and Smyrna parted on good terms.
Only shortly after his return from Rome, Polycarp was called on to shed his blood for the faith. We possess a letter written as early as 156 by a Smyrnean Christian who had been witness to his trial and death. It is the first extant account we have of the death of an individual Christian martyr.
Eleven Christians had already been executed at Smyrna when the bloodthirsty mob in the stadium shouted, “Go and get Polycarp!” Forewarned, the bishop went into hiding, since Christ had said that we must not court a martyr’s crown. But eventually the posse learned of his whereabouts and closed in on him.
Polycarp greeted them cordially. Indeed, he invited them to dinner, asking only that he be given an hour alone to pray. He prayed for two hours with great devotion, and many of his captors were sorry to have to arrest such a holy old man. They took him off to the stadium, nonetheless, where the mob of pagans was drooling for another spectacular execution. The governor first examined him, threatening him with being thrown to the beasts or burnt to death if he did not first swear “by the Genius of the emperor,” and then curse Christ.
With joyful courage, Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have been His servant and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme against my King and Savior?”
The governor therefore ordered that the bishop be burnt to death. The sneering mob shouted, “Here is the schoolmaster of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods.” They hastened to gather wood for the fire. Polycarp was led to the pyre and the executioners started to nail his feet to one of the timbers. “Leave me thus”, said the bishop. God, he said, would give him strength to stand fast. Then he uttered a long and beautiful prayer, praising the Father, through the Son and with the Holy Spirit, for the privilege of drinking of Jesus’ chalice of suffering.
When the fire was set, marvelous to say, the flames rose and surrounded the martyr’s body like a vault. His flesh was not consumed, but browned, and gave off the sweet odor of incense. At length the governor ordered that he be stabbed to death.
The Christians of Smyna afterwards gathered up their bishop’s remains and buried them in a select spot. They resolved to celebrate Mass there on that day every year thereafter. (This is the earliest evidence on record of honoring saints on their feast days, not as God is worshipped, of course, but as the disciples and imitators of the Lord are venerated.)
The writer of this account says that after his death even the pagans of Smyrna spoke well of St. Polycarp. He was indeed, says the narrator, “Not only a great teacher but also a conspicuous martyr, whose testimony, following the Gospel of Christ, everyone desires to imitate.”
Everyone, that is, even ourselves, should it be God’s will for us. Everyone.
–Father Robert F. McNamara