Polycarp of Smyrna, martyred 156 AD

In 02 Apostolic Fathers on 2011/09/26 at 7:30 AM

Polycarp, one of the most illustrious of the apostolic fathers, was a disciple of the Apostles from whom he received instruction and imbued the spirit of Christ.

He became a Christian at a very young age and was always close to John the Evangelist. Before the 96 year old John left for exile in Patmos, he consecrated Polycarp as Bishop of Symrna. Polycarp governed that important sees for seventy years.

It is believed to represent the “angel” of Smyrna in the Revelation, who was commended above all others as irreproachable. There he is praised for having suffered calumny, poverty, tribulation and persecutions.  He is called rich in grace and worthy of receiving the crown of life.

Both Polycarp and John detested the initiators of heresies and anyone who knowingly and willingly defiled the divine truth with their opinions or inventions.  Polycarp’s disciples recollected an incident they often heard him describe: how he and John once went to the baths of Ephesus and there saw a certain man called Cerinthus.  John would not stay in that man’s presence saying to Polycarp:  “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of truth is within.”

Cerinthus was a Jew who claimed to be a Christian but began to teach new and strange ideas as doctrine.  Some were: God was not the Creator; that  the world was created by an inferior pagan being; that Jesus was not the Christ and that he was not God made man.

According to Jerome, Polycarp’s disciples told that one when in Rome, Polycarp encountered a heretic called Marcion. Said Marcion, offended that the holy bishop seemed not to notice him, said: “Do you not know me, Polycarp?” Immediately, Polycarp replied: “Yes, I know you to be the firstborn of Satan.”

In Rome, Polycarp preached convincingly against heretics and many who has strayed returned to the Faith.

When his friend Ignatius passed through Smyrna on his way to being martyred, Polycarp kissed Ignatius’ chains with respect.  Ignatius asked Polycarp to write in his name to those churches of Asia to he did not have time to write to them himself.

Polycarp promptly wrote to the Church in Philadelphia.  The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philadelphians is the only one of those he wrote that has been preserved.  Seeking to strengthen the Philadelphians against persecutions, Polycarp mentions those who had already suffered in their presence:  Ignatius as well as “Rufus, (son of Simon of Cyrene) and others of their own congregation who are now in the place which is due to them with the Lord, with whom they also suffered.”

Ireneaus, a disciple of Polycarp praised this letter as did Jerome and the historian, Eusebius, admiring it for its instructions and admonitions as well as the simple style in which it was written.  Jerome in particular was very familiar with it since it was read publicly in the churches of Asia Minor in his time.

When around 158, Polycarp went to Rome to confer with the Bishop of Rome about certain points of discipline, he took with him his most promising disciple, Ireneaus, who remained in Rome teaching.  Later this Ireneaus would become Bishop of Lyons and a powerful defender of the Faith against the heresies of the Gnostics.

From Ireneaus we know that Polycarp was as Ireneaus speak of as “being of an uncommon age.”  Often, Ireneaus would mention in his own writings that the Apostolic Tradition had passed to him from John the Evangelist through Polycarp, particularly when he was writing about how they all pointed to the Bishop of Rome as the ultimate source of contemporary magisterial authority on doctrinal and theological matters.

When a bishop whom Ireneaus knew to have visited with Polycarp implied certain heretical ideas, Irenaeus did not hesitate to write to him: “These things were not taught to you by the bishops who preceded us. I could tell you the place where the blessed Polycarp sat to preach the word of God. It is yet present in my mind with what gravity he everywhere came in and went out; what was the sanctity of his deportment, the majesty

of his countenance and of his whole exterior, and what were his holy

exhortations to the people….I seem to hear him now relate how he conversed with John and many others who had seen Jesus Christ; the words he had heard from their mouths….I can protest before God that if this holy apostle 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.”

The Bishop of Rome having recently erected a church over St. Peter’s grace, asked Polycarp to say Mass over St. Peter’s grave before he, Polycarp, returned to Smyrna.  Within months of his return, the aged Polycarp bore witness to the truth of Christ with his own blood.

The occasion was a festival held in Smyrna in honor of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Anti-Christians clamored for Polycarp’s arrest.  Although hidden by his disciples and friends, Polycarp was found.

Despite threats of cruel tortures of all kinds, Polycarp would not participate in the pagan worship as demanded of him.  He was carted off to the stadium refusing to abjure and revile Jesus Christ.

Just like Pliny recorded the eruption of Vesuvius as it happened, so this dialogue and many other things Polycarp said  were recorded and preserved by his disciples.  They relate how Polycarp appeared composed, joyful and at peace; how his face glowed with such honesty and cheerfulness to the great surprise of the proconsul who was struck with admiration.

PROCONSUL: “Swear by the genius of Caesar, and I discharge you to blaspheme Christ.”

POLYCARP: “86 years I have served Him and He has done me no wrong.

How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me. 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.”

PROCONSUL: “Persuade the people.”

POLYCARP: “I addressed 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.”

PROCONSUL: “I have wild beasts.”

POLYCARP: “Call for them for we are unalterably resolved not to change from good to evil. It is only good to pass from evil to good.”

PROCONSUL: “If you contemn the beasts, I will cause you to be burnt to ashes.”

POLYCARP: “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.”

“However, the proconsul ordered a crier to make public proclamation three times in the middle of the Stadium: ‘Polycarp hath confessed himself a Christian.’ At this proclamation the whole multitude of Jews and Gentiles shouted Polycarp is ‘the father of the Christians; the destroyer of our gods, who preaches to men not to sacrifice or adore them.’  The mob demanded that he should be burnt alive…when the fire was being prepared, Polycarp took off his garments, untied his girdle, and began to take off his shoes…and said ‘He who gives me grace to undergo this fire will enable me to stand…they tied his hands behind his back, and in this posture looking up towards heaven, he prayed.” His tomb is still venerated in a small chapel in Smyrna.

Within a short span of years, Christianity so spread through the Roman empire that whereas Emperor Hadrian had offered to place Christ in his Pantheon, Hadrianʼs Pantheon was converted into a Christian Church.


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