Imagine being able to sit at the feet of the apostles
and hear their stories of life
from their own lips. Imagine walking with those who had walked with Jesus, seen him, and touched him. That was what Polycarp was able to do as a disciple
of Saint John
But being part of the second generation
of Church leaders had challenges that the first generation
could not teach about. What did you do when those eyewitnesses were gone? How do you carry on the correct teachings of Jesus? How do you answer new questions that never came up before?
With the apostles
gone, heresies sprang up pretending to be true teaching, persecution
was strong, and controversies arose over how to celebrate liturgy
never laid down rules for.
Polycarp, as a holy man
of Smyrna, found there was only one answer -- to be true to the life
and imitate that life. Saint Ignatius of Antioch
told Polycarp "your mind
is grounded in God
as on an immovable rock."
When faced with heresy, he showed the "candid face" that Ignatius admired and that imitated Jesus' response to the Pharisees. Marcion, the leader of the Marcionites
who followed a dualistic heresy, confronted Polycarp and demanded respect by saying, "Recognize us, Polycarp." Polycarp responded, "I recognize you, yes, I recognize the son of Satan."
On the other hand when faced with Christian
disagreements he was all forgiveness and respect. One of the controversies of the time
came over the celebration of Easter. The East, where Polycarp was from, celebrated the Passover
as the Passion of Christ
followed by a Eucharist
on the following day. The West celebrated Easter
on the Sunday
of the week following Passover. When Polycarp went to Rome
to discuss the difference with Pope Anicetus, they could not agree on this issue. But they found no difference in their Christian
beliefs. And Anicetus asked Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist
in his own papal chapel.
Polycarp faced persecution
the way Christ
did. His own church admired him for following the "gospel model" -- not chasing after martyrdom as some did, but avoiding it until it was God's will
did. They considered it "a sign of love to desire not to save oneself alone, but to save also all the Christian
brothers and sisters."
One day, during a bloody martyrdom when Christians were attacked by wild animals in the arena, the crowd became so mad that they demanded more blood by crying, "Down with the atheists; let Polycarp be found." (They considered Christians "atheists" because they didn't believe in their pantheon of gods.) Since Polycarp was not only known as a leader but as someone holy "even before his grey hair appeared", this was a horrible demand.
Polycarp was calm but others persuaded him to leave the city and hide at a nearby farm. He spent his time
for people he knew and for the Church. During his prayer
he saw a vision of his pillow turned to fire and announced to his friends that the dream meant he would be burned alive.
As the search closed in, he moved to another farm, but the police discovered he was there by torturing two boys. He had a little warning since he was upstairs in the house but he decided to stay, saying, "God's will
Then he went downstairs, talked to his captors and fed them a meal. All he asked of them was that they give him an hour to pray. He spent two hours praying for everyone he had every known and for the Church, "remembering all who had at any time
come his way -- small folk and great folk, distinguished and undistinguished, and the whole Catholic
Church throughout the world." Many of his captors started to wonder why they were arresting this holy, eighty-six-year-old bishop.
But that didn't stop them from taking him into the arena on the Sabbath. As he entered the arena, the crowd roared like the animals they cheered. Those around Polycarp heard a voice from heaven
above the crowd, "Be brave, Polycarp, and act like a man."
The proconsul begged the eighty-six-year-old bishop
to give in because of his age. "Say 'Away with the atheists'" the proconsul urged. Polycarp calmly turned to the face the crowd, looked straight at them, and said, "Away with the atheists." The proconsul continued to plead with him. When he asked Polycarp to swear by Caesar to save himself, Polycarp answered, "If you imagine that I will
swear by Caesar, you do not know who I am. Let me tell you plainly, I am a Christian." Finally, when all else failed the proconsul reminded Polycarp that he would be thrown to the wild animals unless he changed his mind. Polycarp answered, "Change of mind
from better to worse is not a change allowed to us."
Because of Polycarp's lack of fear, the proconsul told him he would be burned alive but Polycarp knew that the fire that burned for an hour was better than eternal fire.
When he was tied up to be burned, Polycarp prayed, "Lord God
Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus
Christ, through whom we have received knowledge
of you, God
and powers, of the whole creation
and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice
of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul
and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in you presence, as you have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God
who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus
Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit
glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen."
The fire was lit as Polycarp said Amen
and then the eyewitnesses who reported said they saw a miracle. The fire burst up in an arch
around Polycarp, the flames surrounding him like sails, and instead of being burned he seemed to glow like bread baking, or gold being melted in a furnace. When the captors saw he wasn't being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed put the fire out.
The proconsul wouldn't let the Christians have the body because he was afraid they would worship Polycarp. The witnesses reported this with scorn for the lack of understanding of Christian
faith: "They did not know that we can never abandon the innocent Christ
who suffered on behalf of sinners for the salvation
of those in this world." After the body was burned, they stole
the bones in order to celebrate the memory
of his martyrdom and prepare others for persecution. The date was about February 23, 156.