February 22, 2017

Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, Bishop and Martyr

Saint Polycarp of Smyrna
February 23th, the Church celebrates the optional memorial of Saint Polycarp (69 – 155 AD), the 1st century bishop, martyr and renowned Apostolic Father. Polycarp was widely venerated largely through the accounts of his heroic martyrdom as recorded by the Church in Smyrna. Tradition holds he was born a pagan before being befriended by Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist who catechized Polycarp in the Faith. As Bishop of Smyrna, (a city in Turkey) Polycarp defended orthodoxy and was a staunch opponent of heresy, most notably the Gnostic sects of Marcionism and Valentinianism.

He is honored in both the Eastern and Western Church as one of the three chief Apostolic Fathers (together with Saint Clement of Rome and Saint Ignatius of Antioch). His pupil Saint Irenaeus of Lyons praised his personal holiness and great devotion to God. Some scholars contend that Polycarp may have been responsible for compiling, editing and publishing the New Testament. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that his influence on the development of the early Church was unrivalled and profound.

Polycarp wrote several epistles to various Christian communities in his capacity as bishop. The only surviving letter, his letter to the Philippians, he reminded that Church not to submit their faith to the "gnostic" preachers whose claim was to present a more intellectually sophisticated gospel. Polycarp wrote, citing St. John:
For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is antichrist, and whosoever shall not confess the testimony of the Cross, is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervert the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the firstborn of Satan. Let us therefore, without ceasing, hold fast by our hope and by the pledge of our righteousness.... Jesus Christ, who took up our sins in His own body upon the cross, for our sakes, endured all things – so that we might live in Him.
At the age of 86, in the seventieth year of his episcopate, Polycarp was revered as a holy and wise man. During a wave of Christian persecution the future saint gave his courageous final testimony. The Martyrology recounts the events thusly:

"At Smyrna, the death of St. Polycarp. He was a disciple of the holy apostle John, who consecrated him bishop of that city; and there he acted as the primate of all Asia Minor. Later, under Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, he was brought before the tribunal of the proconsul; and when all the people in the amphitheater cried out against him, he was handed over to be burned to death. But since the fire caused him no harm, he was put to death by the sword. Thus he gained the crown of martyrdom. With him, twelve other Christians, who came from Philadelphia, met death by martyrdom in the same city."

Saint Polycarp could have saved his life, but he refused to renounces his faith in Christ. May we have the courage to live lives of heroic virtue, whether in times of societal persecution, in the face of intimidation or when fighting our own personal weakness. Loving God of all creation, who were pleased to give the Bishop Saint Polycarp a place in the company of the Martyrs, grant, through his intercession, that sharing with him in the chalice of Christ, we may rise through the Holy Spirit to eternal life. 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.

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