SAINT POLYCARP of SMYRNA (c.69-c.155), bishop and martyr
Today, the universal Church honors Saint Polycarp, a bishop of the early Church who taught his disciples to live virtuous lives, always embracing the example which Christ Himself left for us.
Polycarp was one of the immediate disciples of the Apostles, in particular Saint John the Evangelist. He embraced Christianity at a young age and was appointed by the Apostles as the bishop of Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey). He was greatly respected by the faithful, wrote many letters and formed many holy disciples himself. His epistle to the Philippians, the only one to be preserved, demonstrated his apostolic spirit, his profound humility and meekness, and his great charity.
Bishop Polycarp fought against heresy. He also taught that Christians must walk in truth, fulfill God’s will, keep all of His Commandments and love whatever God loves. Christians must refrain from all fraud, avarice, slander or disparagement of one’s character and rash judgment. They must repay evil with forgiveness and mercy; and that one must fast, persevere and be joyful, as well as praying all the time, so as not to be led into temptation.
During his episcopate, a violent persecution broke out in Smyrna against the Christians. During this time, and because he was fearless, the Christian community pleaded with Bishop Polycarp to take refuge in a neighboring farm, where he spent most of his time with others in prayer.
One of the Christians, while under torture in Smyrna, betrayed the bishop’s location, and horsemen came by night to arrest him. He met his captors at the door, asked that a supper be prepared for them, and prayed for two hours before he went with them.
About the year 155, He was led directly to the proconsul at the amphitheater in Smyrna, who ordered him to blaspheme Christ. Bishop Polycarp’s response, as taken from the Letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, refused and stated, “For eighty-six years, I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Bishop Polycarp was then condemned to be burned alive. The executioners would have nailed him to the stake, as was the custom, but he convinced them that it was not necessary. So they simply tied his hands behind his back. At the end of his prayer, the executioners set the fire.
Continuing the account of his martyrdom, we read, “The fire assumed the shape of a room, like a billowing ship’s sail that surrounded the martyr’s body inside it, not like burning flesh but like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. We also smelled a pleasant fragrance like the scent of incense or other costly spices. Finally, the lawless mob, seeing that his body could not be consumed by fire, ordered an executioner to slash him with a sword. When he did so, blood gushed out and quenched the fire, and the entire crowd was amazed…”
The Christians wanted to take Polycarp’s body away, but a Roman centurion, seeing the unrest in the crowd, threw his body in the fire to be burnt. After the crowd had left, his bones were collected and were laid to rest.
We commemorate the feastday of Saint Polycarp’s martyrdom on February 23.
(From catholicnewsagency.com, saints.sqpn.com, americancatholic.org, catholicculture.org, newadvent.org and Eusebius’ “The Church History”)
(The following prayer is from the Roman Breviary from the Proper for Saint Polycarp)
“God of all creation, You gave Your bishop Polycarp the privilege of being counted among the saints who gave their lives in faithful witness to the Gospel. May his prayers give us the courage to share with him the cup of suffering and to rise to eternal glory.
“We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”