Today, February 23, is the Commemoration of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Bishop and Martyr. A disciple of St. John the Apostle and a friend of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp was recognized as a spiritual leader of the early Church in Asia Minor. St. Polycarp was chosen by the Church in Asia Minor to travel to Rome to see Pope Anicetus as one of those to represent their side in the controversy over the date of Easter. On his way to Rome to be martyred himself, St. Ignatius visited St. Polycarp in Smyrna and later wrote him a personal letter from Troas. At 86 years of age, Polycarp was brought before the authorities and the crowds in the stadium at Smyrna, accused of being a Christian. It was demanded of him that he curse Christ. He replied, “For eighty-six years I have served Jesus Christ and he has never abandoned me. How could I curse my King and Savior?” It was ordered that Polycarp be burned at the stake, but the flames miraculously encircled him rather than consume him. He was finally pierced through by a dagger. The Acts of Polycarp are the earliest extant reliable account of a Christian martyrdom and can be found here.
Persecution of the Church, including her bishops, has not ended. Earlier this month, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, was sentenced to 26 years in prison and had his Nicaraguan citizenship revoked, convicted of treason and undermining national integrity. What he actually did was openly opposed Nicaragua president Daniel Ortega’s targeting the Church in an effort to force citizens to give their devotion to the State. Ortega has arrested many priests and others who work for the Church, has expelled the Missionaries of Charity, and even kicked out of the country the papal nuncio (ambassador) to Nicaragua, Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag. On February 9, over 200 Nicaraguan citizens were deported to the United States, including five priests, a deacon, and some media personnel who worked for the Church. Pope Francis has expressed his “pain” at the situation and called for dialogue to resolve tensions, but it looks from here that Ortega isn’t much interested in dialogue. The persecution will continue until Ortega is ousted from office or has a miraculous conversion. Perhaps we should pray for both.
At the end of last year, Cardinal Joseph Zen retired bishop of Hong Kong and outspoken advocate of democracy, was convicted and sentenced to pay a fine for failing to register a now closed fund that existed to assist those arrested during the protests in Hong Kong three years ago. He was initially arrested in May on suspicion of colluding with foreigners under the National Security Law. Margaret Ng, a legislator tried and convicted alongside Cardinal Zen, said of the conviction, “The effect to other people, to the many, many citizens who are associated together to do one thing or another, and what will happen to them, is very important. It is also extremely important about the freedom of association in Hong Kong under Societies Ordinance.”
Pray for Bishop Álvarez and for Cardinal Zen, and for all those of the Christian faith who face the challenge of living faithfully in the face of governments that do not secure religious freedom, or who actively persecute believers.
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St. Polycarp of Smyrna, pray for us.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.