Champions of Catholic Orthodoxy

Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr (†155; Feast – January 26)

St. Polycarp Amidst the sweetness he is enjoying from the contemplation of the Word made Flesh, St. John, the Beloved Disciple, beholds coming towards him his dear Polycarp, the Angel of the Church of Smyrna (Apoc. 2: 8), all resplendent with the glory of martyrdom (he is the only angel or bishop mentioned in the Apocalypse without any reproach). This venerable Saint was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, whom he imitated by zealously opposing the heretics, who were then striving to corrupt the Faith. In obedience to the com-mand of his holy Master (2 John, 1: 10), he refused to have anything to do with Marcion, the heresiarch, whom he called the first-born of Satan. This energetic adversary of the proud sect that denied the mystery of the Incarnation, wrote an admirable Epistle to the Philippians, in which we find these words: Whosoever confesses not that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, is an Antichrist. St. Polycarp, then, had a right to the honor of standing near the Crib, in which the Son of God shows Himself to us in all His loveliness, and clothed in flesh like unto our own. Let us honor this disciple of St. John, this friend of St. Ignatius of Antioch, this Bishop of the Apostolic Age, whose praise was pronounced by Jesus Christ Himself in the Revelations of Patmos. Our Savior said to him by the mouth of St. John: Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life (Apoc. 2: 10). St. Polycarp was faithful unto death, and has received his crown; and whilst we are celebrating the coming of his King among us, he is one of the Saints who assist us to profit by the holy season.

In the sixth year of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, Statius Quadratus being proconsul of Asia, a violent persecution broke out in that country, in which the faithful gave heroic proofs of their courage and love of God, to the astonishment of the infidels. When they were torn to pieces with scourges till their very bowels were laid bare, amidst the moans and tears of the spectators, who were moved with pity at the sight of their torments, not one of them gave so much as a single groan: so little regard had they for their own flesh in the cause of God. No kind of torture, no inventions of cruelty were forborne to force them to a conformity to the pagan worship of the times. The authors of these Acts observe that the martyrs by their patience and constancy demonstrated to all men that, while their bodies were tormented, they were in spirit estranged from the flesh, and already in Heaven; or rather that Our Lord was present with them and assisted them; for the fire of the barbarous executioners seems as if it had been a cooling refreshment to them.

On one occasion, seeing the courage of one Germanicus and his companions, and being fond of their impious bloody diversions, the spectators cried out: Away with the impious; let Polycarp be sought for. The holy man, though fearless, had been prevailed upon by his friends to withdraw and conceal himself in a neighboring village during the persecution, spending most of his time in prayer. Three days before his martyrdom, he in a vision saw his pillow on fire; from which he understood by revelation, and foretold to his companions, that he should be burned alive. When the persecutors were in quest of him, he changed his hiding-place, but was betrayed by a boy, who was threatened with the rack unless he discovered him. Herod the Irenarch, or keeper of the peace, whose office it was to prevent misdemeanors and apprehend malefactors, sent horsemen by night to beset his lodgings. The Saint was upstairs in bed, but refused to make his escape, saying, God's will be done. He went down, met them at the door, ordered them a good supper, and desired only some time for prayer before he went with them. This granted, he began his prayer standing, which he continued in that posture for two hours, recommending to God his own flock and the whole church with so much earnestness and devotion, that several of those who were come to seize him, repented they had undertaken the commission.

They set him on an ass, and were conducting him towards the city, when he was met on the road by Herod and his father Nicetes, who took him into their chariot, and endeavored to persuade him to a little compliance, saying: What harm is there in saying 'Lord Caesar,' or even in sacrificing, to escape death? By the word 'Lord' was meant nothing less than a kind of deity or godhead. The bishop at first was silent, in imitation of our Savior, but being pressed, he gave them this resolute answer: I shall never do what you desire of me. At these words, taking off the mask of friendship and compassion, they treated him with scorn and reproaches, and thrust him out of the chariot with such violence, that his leg was bruised by the fall.

The holy man went cheerfully to the place where the people were assembled. Upon his entering it, a voice from Heaven was heard by many, saying: Polycarp, be courageous, and act manfully. He was led directly to the tribunal of the proconsul, who exhorted him to respect his own age (probably more than 100 years), to swear by the genius of Caesar, and to say: Take away the impious, meaning the Christians. The Saint, turning towards the people, said with a stern countenance: Exterminate the wicked, meaning by this expression either a wish that they might cease to be wicked by their conversion to the Faith of Christ; or this was a prediction of the calamity which befell their city in 177, when Smyrna was overturned by an earthquake. The proconsul repeated: Swear by the genius of Caesar, and I will discharge you; blaspheme Christ! Polycarp replied: I have served him these 86 years (probably the time since his Baptism) and He never did me any harm, but much good; and how can I blaspheme my King and my Savior? If you require of me to swear by the genius of Caesar, as you call it, hear my free confession: I am a Christian; but if you desire to learn the Christian religion, appoint a time and hear me. The proconsul said: Persuade the people. The martyr replied: I address my discourse to you; for we are taught to give due honor to princes as far as is consistent with religion. But the populace is an incompetent judge to justify myself before. Indeed rage rendered them incapable of hearing him.

The proconsul then assuming a tone of severity, said: I have wild beasts! Call for them, replied the Saint, for we are unalterably resolved not to change from good to evil. It is only good to pass from evil to good. The proconsul said: If you contemn the beasts, I will cause you to be burnt to ashes. Polycarp answered: You threaten me with a fire which burns for a short time, and then goes out; but are yourself ignorant of the judgment to come, and of the fire of everlasting torments, which is prepared for the wicked. Why do you delay? Bring against me what you please. While he said this and many other things, he appeared in a transport of joy and confidence and his countenance shone with a certain heavenly grace, and pleasant cheerfulness, insomuch that the proconsul himself was struck with admiration.

St. Polycarp greets St. Ignatius However he ordered a crier to make public proclamation three times in the middle of the Stadium (as was the Roman custom in capital cases): Polycarp has confessed himself a Christian! At this proclamation the whole multitude of Jews and Gentiles gave a great shout, the latter crying out: This is the great teacher of Asia; the father of the Christians; the destroyer of our gods, who preaches to men not to sacrifice to or adore them. They applied to Philip the Asiarch (president of the public games) to let loose a lion upon Polycarp. He told them that it was not in his power, because those games had been closed. Then they unanimously demanded that he should be burned alive. Their request was no sooner granted, but everyone ran with all speed to fetch wood from the baths and shops. (Image at right: St. Polycarp greets St. Ignatius of Antioch, who is being taken to Rome for martyrdom.)

The pile being prepared, St. Polycarp put off his garments, untied his girdle, and began to take off his shoes; an office he had not been accustomed to, the Christians having always striven who should do these things for him, regarding it as a happiness to be permitted even to touch him. The wood and other combustibles were heaped all round him. The executioners would have nailed him to the stake; but he said to them: Suffer me to be as I am. He who gives me grace to undergo this fire, will enable me to stand still without that precaution. They therefore contented themselves with tying his hands behind his back, and in this posture looking up towards Heaven, 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 my portion in the number of Thy Martyrs, and partake of the chalice of Thy Christ, for the resurrection to eternal life, in the incorruptibleness of the Holy Ghost. Amongst whom grant me to be received this day as a pleasing sacrifice, such as one as Thou Thyself hast prepared, that so Thou mayest accomplish what Thou, O true and faithful God, hast foreshown. Wherefore, for all things I praise, bless, and glorify Thee, through the eternal High Priest Jesus Christ Thy beloved Son, with Whom, to Thee and the Holy Ghost be glory now and forever. Amen.

He had scarcely finished when fire was set to the pile, which increased to a mighty flame. But behold a wonder, say the authors of these Acts, seen by us reserved to attest it to others; the flames forming themselves into an arch, like the sails of a ship swelled with the wind, gently encircled the body of the Martyr; which stood in the middle, resembling not roasted flesh, but purified gold or silver, appearing bright through the flames; and his body sending forth such a fragrance that we seemed to smell precious spices. The blind infidels were only exasperated to see that his body could not be consumed, and ordered a spearman to pierce him through, which he did, and such a quantity of blood issued out of his left side as to quench the fire.

The malice of the devil ended not here: he endeavored to obstruct the relics of the Martyr being carried off by the Christians; for many desired to do it, to show their respect to his body. Therefore by the suggestion of Satan, Nicetes advised the proconsul not to bestow it on the Christians, lest, said he, abandoning the Crucified Man, they should adore Polycarp. The Jews suggested this, Not knowing, say the authors of the Acts, that we can never forsake Christ, nor adore any other, though we love the Martyrs, as His disciples and imitators, for the great love they bore their King and Master. The centurion, seeing a contest raised by the Jews, placed the body in the middle, and burned it to ashes. We afterwards took up the bones, say they, more precious than the richest jewels or gold, and deposited them decently in a place at which may God grant us to assemble with joy, to celebrate the natal day of the Martyr. Thus said these disciples and eye-witnesses. It was at two in the afternoon, which the authors of the Acts call the eighth hour, in the year 155, that St. Polycarp received his crown. His tomb is still shown with great veneration at Smyrna in a small chapel.

Martyrdom of St. Polycarp The Church gives us a passage from St. Jerome's book, On Ecclesiastical Writers, in which there is contained a short notice of our Holy Martyr:

Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, who ordained him Bishop of Smyrna, was looked up to by all the Churches of Asia, inasmuch as he had not only known some of the Apostles, and those who had seen Our Lord, but had been trained by them. He went to Rome, during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, and under the Pontificate of Anicetus, in order to have an answer to certain questions regarding Easter day. Whilst there, he brought back to the Faith several Christians who had been misled by the teaching of Marcion and Valentine. Having on a certain occasion casually met Marcion, who said to him: Dost thou know us? Polycarp replied: Yes, I know thee as the first-born of Satan. Some time after, under the reign of Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, in the fourth persecution after that under Nero, he was cited before the Proconsul of Smyrna, who condemned him to be burnt alive; which sentence was carried into effect in the amphitheater, amidst the clamors of the whole people. He wrote an important Letter to the Philippians, which is still read in the Churches of Asia.

How well didst thou bear out the full meaning of the name, O Polycarp! For thou didst produce many fruits for thy Savior, during the eighty-six years spent in His service. The numerous souls won over to Christ, the virtues which adorned thy life, and thy life itself, which thou didst present to thy Lord in its full maturity—these were thy fruits. And what happiness was thine to have received instruction from the Disciple that leaned upon Jesus' Breast! After being separated from him for more than sixty years, thou art united with him on this day of thy martyrdom, and thy venerable master receives thee in a transport of joy. Thou dost adore with him that Divine Babe, Whose simplicity thou hadst imitated during life, and Who was the single object of thy love. Ask of Him for us, that we too may be faithful unto death.

By thy prayers, now that thou art enthroned in Heaven, make fruitful the vineyard of the Church, which when on earth thou didst cultivate by thy labors, and water with the blood of thy glorious martyrdom. Re-establish faith and unity in the Churches of Asia, which were founded by thy venerable hand. Hasten, by thy prayers, the destruction of that degrading slavery of Islam, which has kept the East in bondage so long, because her once faithful children severed themselves from Rome by the great schism of Byzantium. Pray for the Church of Lyons, which regards thee as its founder, through the ministry of thy disciple Pothinus, and took itself so glorious a share in the apostolate of the Gentiles, by the Work of the Propagation of the Faith.

Watch over the purity of our holy Faith, and preserve us from being deceived by false teachers. The error which thou didst combat, and which teaches that all the mysteries of the Incarnation are but empty symbols, has risen up again in these our days. There are Marcions, even now, who would reduce all religion to myths; and they find followers. May thy powerful prayers rid the world of this remnant of so impious a doctrine. Thou didst pay homage to the Apostolic Chair, for thou, too wanted to see Peter, and didst journey to Rome, in order to consult its Pontiff on questions regarding the interests of thy Church in Smyrna. Pray for the restoration of this august See, whence are derived the jurisdiction of our Pastors, and the authoritative teachings of the Faith. Pray for us, that we may spend the remaining days of this holy Christmas Season in the contemplation and the love of our new-born King. May this love, accompanied with purity of heart, draw down upon us the merciful blessings of God, and at length, after our course is run, obtain for us the Crown of Life.

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