February 23

St. Polycarp

St. Polycarp

At the Feet of the Beloved Disciple

It must have been a great privilege to be taught by the Apostles and to hear their personal encounter with Jesus from their own testimonies. What an honor to be with those men who had seen the Lord with their own eyes and who had heard His teachings! That was what our beloved Polycarp experienced as a humble disciple of St. John the Evangelist.

According to tradition, St. Polycarp was born around 69 AD. He was of Greek origin and became the bishop of Smyrna. He was one of the most revered Christian leaders during the first half of the second century. Being a leader of the early Christian community, he faced several challenges particularly on how he would carry the teachings of Jesus correctly and on how he would answer questions that never existed during the time of the Apostles.

Responding to Controversies

Now that the Apostles were gone, the early Church started to encounter serious issues. Heresies sprang up under the guise of true teaching. The Roman Emperors ordered persecution among the Christians. Arguments and controversies arose on many concerns like how to celebrate the liturgy, the liturgy that Jesus never laid down rubrics for.

Polycarp, the holy bishop of Smyrna, had but one response to all of these: sequela Christi, that is, to be faithful to the life of Jesus and to imitate His life. When faced with heresies, he showed his candidness that imitated the response of Jesus to the Pharisees. Marcion, the figurehead of the Marcionites who were adherents of a dualistic heresy, confronted Polycarp and demanded respect by saying, “Recognize us, Polycarp.” Polycarp answered that he indeed recognize him, that Marcion is the “firstborn of Satan”. When faced with Christian disagreements, he was all respect and forgiveness.

Polycarp was a close friend of another great leader, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch. On his way to his cruel yet glorious martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius visited Polycarp at Smyrna, and later wrote him a personal letter at Troas. Polycarp’s leadership was recognized by the churches in Asia Minor by choosing him as a representative to discuss with Pope Anicetus regarding the date of what was considered to be a major controversy in the early Church, that is, the celebration of Easter in Rome.

Even unto Death

Polycarp was not spared from dying a martyr’s death. One day, during a bloody “show” when Christians were attacked by wild animals in the arena, the crowd became so mad that they demanded more of this “show”. They were bored by seeing the “ordinary” Christians being killed. And so, to satisfy their insatiable appetite for violence, they demanded that the old Polycarp be captured and killed.

The horrible demand reached the holy bishop. The Christians persuaded Polycarp to flee and leave the city. He spent his time in deep prayer for the people he loved and for the Church. While he was praying, he saw a vision of his pillow that turned into fire. He announced this to his friends, saying that his dream meant he would be burned alive.

After he was captured, Polycarp was brought to the Smyrna stadium to be killed. The proconsul offered him to renounce the faith and worship the emperor. Polycarp refused to do such an act. In order to instill more fear, the proconsul said that Polycarp would be burned alive if he would not abandon the faith. Once again, the 86-year old bishop refused, for he believed that an hour of fire was better than the eternal fire. After praying, Polycarp was burned at the stake. However, the flames did him no harm. When the captors saw he was not being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed from the bishop put the fire out. Unwilling to allow the Christians to reclaim the body of the martyred bishop, the authorities ordered that Polycarp’s body be burned. Polycarp was believed to be martyred on February 23, 156.

Five Interesting Facts About St. Polycarp

  1. St. Polycarp is the patron saint against earache, dysentery and intestine disorders.
  2. St. Polycarp was apparently the last to be martyred in Smyrna.
  3. There is an existing account of St. Polycarp’s martyrdom. It is entitled “The Martyrdom of Polycarp”. It is believed to be an eyewitness account and one of the oldest “acta” of a Christian martyr.
  4. Since the persecutors did not permit the Christians to recover the remains of St. Polycarp, they stole the martyr’s bones! This is considered to be one of the earliest examples of the veneration of relics.
  5. The relics of St. Polycarp are kept in a marble stone under the main altar of the Church of Sant’ Ambrogio della Massima in Italy.

Prayer to St. Polycarp

God of all creation,You gave Your bishop Polycarpthe privilege of being counted among the saintswho gave their lives in faithful witness to the Gospel.May his prayers give us the courageto share with him the cup of sufferingand to rise to eternal glory.We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.