Saint Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle St John, and was born about the seventieth year of the Christian era. He was a Christian from his infancy, and on account of his extraordinary piety was greatly beloved by the apostles, his teachers. Polycarp was also responsible for converting many from Gnosticism. His only existing writing, a pastoral letter to the church at Philippi, shows he had little formal education, and was unpretentious, humble, and direct.
Saint Polycarp was consecrated Bishop of Smyrna by St John himself before this apostle’s banishment to the Island of Patmos. It is looked upon as certain that our saint was the angel, or Bishop of Smyrna, commended by the Lord in the Apocalypse: “And to the angel of the church of Smyrna write…I know they tribulation and they poverty; but thou art rich…Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life.”
Polycarp was an old man, at least 86 years old, and probably the last surviving person to have known an apostle, having been a disciple of St. John. This was one reason he was greatly revered as a teacher and church leader. One interesting feature of the letter is that the writer is very conscious of how Polycarp’s death followed the pattern of Christ’s. As you read it, look for parallels between this story and the Easter story in the gospels.
Saint Polycarp governed the church of Smyrna seventy years, according to Fleury, with so much prudence and approbation that he was regarded as the principal of the Asiatic bishops, on account of the great veneration in which he was held. When eighty years of age, he went to Rome to consult with Pope Anicetus on some points of discipline, particularly regarding the time at which Easter should be celebrated. St Polycarp’s delay in Rome was very useful to the faithful, as it afforded him an opportunity of confuting the heresies of that period.
Meeting the heresiarch Marcion, who inquired of the holy bishop whether he knew him; “Yes,” answered St Polycarp, “I know thee to be the first-born of the devil.”
On his return to Asia, Saint Polycarp suffered much in the persecution which the Emperor Marcus Aurelius raised against the Church, and which was particularly felt at Smyrna, where the proconsul, Statius Quadratus, was exercising the most barbarous cruelty against the faithful. Amongst other acts of persecution, he caused twelve Christians, who were brought from Philadelphia, to be devoured by wild beasts.
Excited by this bloodshed, the pagans were loud in their demands for the slaughter of the Christians, particularly of Saint Polycarp, who failed not on his part to encourage his flock to the most heroic proofs of constancy, in suffering torments and death for Jesus Christ. Notwithstanding the continual clamor raised against him, the saint wished to remain in the city for the discharge of his pastoral duties, but was obliged, by the importunity of the faithful, to retire to a house without the city, where, during his stay, he occupied the entire night and day in holy prayer.
The Christians, aware that the soldiers were in pursuit of him, removed him to another house; but a young servant, overawed by the fear of torture, revealed the place of his concealment. Roman soldiers eventually discovered Polycarp’s whereabouts and came to his door. When his friends urged him to run, Polycarp replied, “God’s will be done,” and he let the soldiers in. He received them into his house, ordered them a handsome supper, and desired only some time for prayer, which being granted, he was for two hours absorbed in meditation.
The next day the saint was interrogated him in front of a crowd of curious onlookers. He was presented to the proconsul, who asked him to denounce Jesus Chrits for him to be discharged.
The saint rejoined: “I have served Jesus Christ these fourscore and six years; he never did me harm, but much good; how can I blaspheme Him? How can I blaspheme my Creator and my Savior, who is also my judge, and who justly punished those who deny Him?”
The tyrant, still continuing to tempt him to deny Jesus Christ, Polycarp replied that he was a Christian, and considered it a glory to die for Christ.
The proconsul threatened him with wild beasts.
“Call for them quickly,” replied the saint; “I cannot change from good to evil; the beasts will help me to pass from mortal suffering to the glory of heaven.”
The proconsul then threatened him to be burned alive.
The saint answered: “Thy fire only lasts a moment; there is another fire which is eternal, and of that I am afraid. Why dost thou delay to execute thy threats?” This St Polycarp said with so much intrepidity, that the tyrant himself was struck with admiration; he ordered, however, a crier to make public proclamation that Polycarp had avowed himself a Christian; whereupon the entire multitude of pagans cried out and agreed that he should be burned alive, instead of being devoured by wild beasts. The pile was prepared by the pagans, and also by the Jews, who were particulary active in offering themselves as executioners. Polycarp put off his garments, and seeing they were about to fasten him to the stake, said:
“Leave aside these nails: He who gives me fortitude to undergo this fire, will enable me to stand still without them.”
They therefore contented themselves with tying St Polycarp’s hands behind his back, and placed him upon the pile, whence raising his eyes to heaven, the saint prayed after the following manner:
“I bless Thee, O God, for having vouchsafed to make me a partaker in the Passion of Jesus Christ Thy Son, by rendering me worthy to offer myself as a sacrifice for Thy honor, that I may be enabled to praise Thee in heaven, and to bless Thee for all eternity.”
The pile was set on fire, yet the flames did not touch the body of the saint, but formed, as it were, an arch around him, while his flesh exhaled a most fragrant odor. The pagans, exasperated to see that the fire had no effect, transfixed him with a spear, and such a quantity of blood issued from the wound as extinguished the flames.
Thus did St Polycarp terminate his triumph, as is recorded in the celebrated epistle of the Church of Smyrna, which may be seen in “Ruinart’s Collection of the Acts of the Martyrs.” His martyrdom took place about the year 160.
*as told by St. Alphonsus de Liguori
*stay tune to know more about Saint Polycarp martyrdom which is related to Easter, on my next post soon.