St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

Today, February 23, is the Memorial of St. Polycarp, bishop and martyr.

St. Polycarp, whose name means “much fruit,” was born in AD 65. It is testified by St. Irenaeus (who knew Polycarp when Irenaeus was a young man) and Tertullian, as well as later by St. Jerome, that St. Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Apostle, who ordained him as a presbyter of Smyrna (in Asia Minor, present day Turkey). St. Polycarp would go on to become Bishop of Smyrna. He was acquainted with St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred c. 107 and who wrote a letter to Polycarp and speaks of him in two of the letters he wrote on the way to his own martyrdom in Rome. St. Polycarp was also a companion of Papias, the late first and early second century Bishop of Hierapolis, who had also known St. John the Apostle and who testifies to the writings of the Gospels. Along with Pope St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp of Smyrna is honored as one of the three Apostolic Fathers of the Church, because of his proximity to the early Church and his being a disciple of St. John the Apostle. The Apostolic Fathers are regarded as a bridge between the Apostolic Era and the Church of the middle to late second century.

Polycarp was highly regarded during his life. He visited Pope St. Anicetus (c. 157 – c. 168) in Rome to discuss the different practices of the Church in the East and the West. They agreed on much, but continued to observe different traditions for the date of Easter. Even still, they remained in communion with each other and St. Anicetus allowed St. Polycarp to celebrate the Mass in the pope’s own church, a great honor given to the Bishop of Smyrna.

There are two outstanding surviving works related to St. Polycarp. The first is his own Letter to the Philippians in which he encourages the Christians of Philippi to live virtuous lives, speaks to the duties of deacons, priests and others, and encourages them to persevere in hope. The Letter is identified by most scholars as genuine to St. Polycarp and actually consisting of two letters written many years apart that were merged together. You can find a copy here.

The second work is “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” which is a hagiographic account of the bishop’s martyrdom in 155 by being burned at the stake and then pierced with a spear when the fire miraculously failed to consume him. Polycarp was arrested by the authorities of the Roman Empire for being a Christian and refusing to pay divine homage to the emperor. When the proconsul demanded that Polycarp renounce Christ and honor the emperor in consideration of the bishop’s advanced years, Polycarp responded, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” You can read “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” here. It’s worth it.

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” gives an account of the martyr’s prayer as he was being bound to the stake:

“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of Your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption imparted by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”

St. Polycarp has been recognized as a saint and martyr by East and West since immediately after his martyrdom. In this time when Christians in the Middle East still face persecution and martyrdom, it is a good day to ask the prayers of St. Polycarp for the protection, perseverance, and courage of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.

St. Polycarp of Smyrna, pray for us.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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