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St. Polycarp (February 23)

February 23, 2005

On this date in the midst of the second century, an era ended.
The last of those who had received the Faith from the lips of the apostles
departed this life for Heaven in a blaze of glory.

St. Polycarp was a disciple of the apostles, of St. John in particular,
and was ordained bishop of Smyrna at a young age by St. John himself.
Smyrna was a seaport of what is now western Turkey–
not far from Ephesus, which we know from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Polycarp is thought to be the “angel of the church at Smyrna”
to whom St. John wrote in Revelations 2:8-11,
one of the few Church leaders Jesus did not scold in this book.
Polycarp was known as one who hated heresy,
yet who was willing to agree to disagree about matters which were not essential for salvation.
We see an example of his hatred of heresy in a letter St. Irenaeus wrote to Florinus
about certain doctrinal errors.
Since Florinus had known Polycarp, Irenaeus appealed to the martyr’s memory:
“I can protest before God that if this holy bishop had heard of any error like yours,
he would have immediately stopped his ears, and cried out, according to his custom,
‘Good God! that I should be reserved to these times to hear such things!’
That very instant he would have fled out of the place in which he had heard such doctrine”
(_Butler’s Lives of the Saints_).
Polycarp’s willingness to agree to disagree over matters not essential for salvation
can be seen in his visit to Rome to confer with Pope Anicetus
regarding a difference between the Eastern and Western churches over the date of Easter.
After much discussion, they finally agreed to each keep their own custom in peace with each other.

Most of what we know of Polycarp comes from the account of his martyrdom.
A great persecution had broken out in the province of Asia
(which is now western Greece, not the Asian continent as we know it),
and several martyrs had already shown great courage under torture.
The one Christian who had been persuaded to sacrifice to the idols, Quintus,
was one who had willingly turned himself in and induced others to join him.
He is held up as a negative example–when persecution comes, we are not to invite it upon ourselves,
lest we run ahead of God’s grace
(martyrdom requires a special grace from God, and as Jesus told the devil,
we are not to put God to the test–see Matthew 4:7).

Polycarp, who was at least in his late 80’s by this point, did not invite persecution.
His disciples helped him to hide.
But when the crowd’s appetite for blood had been whetted by the deaths of the first martyrs,
they began to call for Polycarp.
Under torture, one of the servants of his household gave away Polycarp’s whereabouts
and the keeper of the peace, Herod, sent a group of men by night to the house where he was hiding.
Rather than flee again, Polycarp calmly met them at the door,
ordered as much food and drink as they wanted and asked permission to pray before going with them.
For two hours he stood praying aloud, commending to God the entire Church
and everyone he had ever met.
His captors, sorry to be taking part in the arrest of such an honorable man,
set him on a donkey and led him toward the city.
Herod and Herod’s father met him with a chariot and took him into it, coaxing him to reject Christ.
When he firmly refused, they pushed him out of the chariot so roughly that he hurt
(some say bruised, others say dislocated) his leg.
Still cheerful, he walked the rest of the way to the stadium,
which was packed with people yelling for his blood.
As he entered, a voice from Heaven spoke, saying,
“Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!”

It was on this day in the year 155 (or so), that Polycarp entered the stadium.
There the governor tried to persuade him to reject his faith.
Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury:
how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” (ibid.)
The governor then threatened to throw him to the wild beasts,
to which Polycarp replied, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good
in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil
to what is righteous.” (ibid.)
Seeing that he had no fear of the beasts, the governor then threatened him with fire.
Polycarp replied, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour,
and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment
and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly.
But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.” (ibid.).
At this, the governor announced to the crowd that Polycarp had admitted to being a Christian,
at which they cried out, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians,
and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice,
or to worship the gods “(ibid.), words which ultimately testify
to the effectiveness of the holy bishop’s years of service.

The crowd ran to the shops and bathhouses in the area and assembled fuel for the pyre in short order. Polycarp took off his outer garments himself, loosened his belt and tried to take off his sandals
(he wasn’t used to doing that because the faithful vied with each other for the chance to touch him).
Then, bound in the midst of the fuel, he prayed again, thanking God for the privilege of martyrdom. When he had finished, the fire was lit and blazed up around him in an arch, like the sails of a ship billowing in the wind (since this was a port city, sails were an everyday sight).
Witnesses reported that his body looked like bread baking,
or like gold or silver shining in a furnace, not like burnt flesh.
And a sweet fragrance of incense, not of burning flesh, came forth from the pyre.
Since the fire did not harm him, the executioner carried out orders to pierce Polycarp with a dagger. His body was then burned to prevent the faithful from carrying away relics,
although they collected the bones that remained, considering them more precious than jewels.

Thus did the last of those who had heard the Gospel from the lips of the Apostles
pass nobly into eternal life.
His name, “Polycarp”, literally means “many” “fruit”,
and indeed his life and death did bear much fruit for the kingdom of Heaven.

St. Polycarp, noble lover of truth, please pray for us,
that we might have the courage to suffer, when necessary, for what is right.


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