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St. Polycarp Of Smyrna

January 23, 2018 saints No Comments


Researching Church history usually begins with studying the fathers of the Church. Many rely heavily on the writings on spirituality, traditions, and the development of doctrine of these men, including St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Jerome. Who are these men and why are they called fathers of the Church?
There are four qualities that are considered when categorizing these fathers: They lived before the close of the eighth century, they preserved doctrinal integrity, they possessed personal sanctity, and they earned the approval of the Church.
Many lived in the first few centuries after the death of Christ and are very well known, having left abundant writings that have been handed down. Others are less well known for their writings and better known for their heroic sanctity. St. Polycarp of Smyrna was known widely for his strict adherence to doctrinal integrity and for his heroic fortitude in the face of the enemy.
Most of what is known about St. Polycarp has been saved by other saints who wrote of his sanctity and orthodoxy. Certainly he was a courageous Christian filled with the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Polycarp was born around AD 69, converting to Christianity when he was 11 years old. He was a disciple of the apostles, especially of St. John the Evangelist. Most likely, before he went to Patmos, St. John placed Polycarp in Smyrna as bishop, where he served for 70 years.
As bishop, St. Polycarp endured many challenges such as persecution, poverty, and other sufferings. These developed his virtue and gifts as he would eventually be called to martyrdom.
He also encouraged his disciples in their trials, helping them to develop a deeper spiritual Christ-like life and a clearer understanding of his teachings. His disciples included such illustrious men as St. Irenaeus and St. Papias, who described Polycarp as possessing “sanctity of deportment, majestic countenance, and a consistency in holy exhortations.”
St. Jerome wrote that St. Polycarp met the heretic Marcion in Rome. Marcion was quite chagrined that Polycarp paid him little attention and arrogantly asked Polycarp if he knew who he was. The bishop of Smyrna turned to him regally and quickly retorted, “Yes, I know you to be the firstborn of Satan.” Polycarp had absolutely no tolerance for heretics.
On the other hand, he had a great love for those who remained faithful and gave the ultimate witness by their willing martyrdom. When Ignatius of Antioch was led through the streets to his execution, Polycarp stopped the procession and knelt to kiss the chains that were wrapped around St. Ignatius. The saint then asked Polycarp to care for his people.
Thus Polycarp wrote a succinct and clear letter — praised by many — to the Philippians, which is the only one of his letters which has been preserved.
One of the more significant accomplishments of Polycarp was settling the controversy regarding the celebration of Easter. The Western churches used one method of determining the date of celebration whereas the Asiatic churches used a different method and thus a different date. In 158 he went to Rome and while there he presented both sides and the Pope agreed that each church could celebrate on the date to which they were accustomed.
As time went on, Marcus Aurelius came to power and thus began one of the most brutal persecutions of Christians. This persecution reached Smyrna, becoming a site of some of the most barbarous killings of the faithful. Young and old, noble and lowly — no one was exempt from the punishments for being a Christian.
The blood lust of the people intensified and finally they cried out for Polycarp, demanding that he be killed. As the situation had been deteriorating, Polycarp’s friends finally persuaded him to hide in order to save his life. The bishop then went to a nearby village and hid, leaving himself available to his sheep.
He spent most of his time in prayer and meditation. He then had a vision of himself sleeping on his pillow which caught on fire. Thus, he discerned that his death would come soon and that he would be martyred by being burned at the stake.
Since his enemies continued to search for him, he was taken to a new location to escape. Sadly, a young boy witnessed the movements and under threat of dire torture revealed the location of Polycarp. When the soldiers came, Polycarp calmly greeted them and said, “God’s will be done.” He prepared food for the soldiers and asked them to allow him some time to pray. While they enjoyed their meal, some soldiers had misgivings of their mission as a few of them came to admire Polycarp for the way he prayed during his conversation with God, begging Him to care for his flock.
On the journey to Smyrna, Herod and Nicetes met Polycarp on the road. They stopped and tried to convince Polycarp to deny Christ and pay them homage. Imitating Christ when He stood before another Herod, Polycarp remained silent. As the pressed him again and again, more and more earnestly, Polycarp eventually turned to them and calmly said, “I shall never do what you desire of me.”
Enraged by his determination to remain faithful, they threw him out of their carriage injuring his leg. Nevertheless, Polycarp rose with dignity and went to the assembly that awaited him. As he entered, he heard a voice say to him, “Polycarp, be courageous and act manfully.” The proconsul demanded that Polycarp scorn the Christians, but he refused, looked at the people, and clearly projected his voice so that there would be no mistaking what he said: “Exterminate the wicked.” He yearned for their conversion, but this prophetic statement was fulfilled in 177 when a severe earthquake destroyed Smyrna.
Standing before the proconsul, Polycarp answered every challenge with wisdom and authority. Whenever the proconsul threatened him with various tortures and death, the saint remained confident and even cheerful. Polycarp finally closed the exchange, “Why do you delay? Bring against me what you please.”
He was sentenced to burning at the stake. When he was placed on the wood with his hands tied, he prayed, “O almighty Lord God, Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of thee, God of angels, powers, and every creature, and of all the race of the just that live in thy presence, I bless thee for having been pleased in thy goodness to bring me to this hour, that I may receive a portion in the number of martyrs, and partake of the chalice of thy Christ.”
With great joy he watched the fire being lit, but the fire did not touch him. Frustrated by this miracle, the soldiers speared Polycarp in the side and he died. His martyrdom took place either in 166 or 169 and his feast is now celebrated on February 23. (The old date was January 23).
Dear St. Polycarp, as we too face heretics both within and outside the Church, obtain for us the grace to remain charitable yet forceful in our denunciation of such evil and pray for the conversion of the enemies of the Truth as taught by Jesus Christ. Amen.

+ + +

(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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