Who Was Saint Polycarp?

A few years ago, on Saint Polycarp’s feast day, I attended Mass at a friary for senior Franciscans. During his homily, the priest emphasized that Saint Polycarp was arrested and martyred at age eighty-six and that he was the same age as some of the friars present at this Mass. His homily made me think that Saint Polycarp would be a good patron and example for older priests and bishops.

Saint Polycarp was born in the year 69 AD, and he knew the Apostles. He was a disciple of the Apostle and Evangelist, Saint John, who consecrated him as Bishop of Smyrna, in what is now Turkey. We can learn something of Saint Polycarp’s teachings from his only writing that remains: The Epistle to the Philippians. In this Epistle, Saint Polycarp encouraged the Philippians to remain faithful Catholics, practice virtue, avoid sin, and follow Jesus’s teachings and the teachings of Saint Paul. He also gave specific advice for laypeople, deacons, young men, virgins, and priests. Saint Polycarp’s Epistle shows his own humility and his desire for the salvation of souls.

When Polycarp was eighty-six years old, the Christians in Smyrna were experiencing a time of persecution. One day, while watching the martyrdom of some Christians in the amphitheater, the crowd called for Polycarp to be killed too. Polycarp had already left the city of Smyrna to stay at a house in the countryside after some friends persuaded him to go. While staying in the house, he devoted his time to prayer. He experienced a vision of his pillow on fire and said, “it must needs be that I shall be burned alive.” Having learned that the government forces were near, he went to stay at another farmhouse. A slave boy revealed where Polycarp was staying after having been tortured, and the soldiers came to arrest him. Polycarp said, “God’s will be done”. Polycarp spoke kindly to the men who came to arrest him and had a meal prepared for them. Before departing, he prayed for two hours, interceding for everyone he ever met and for the Catholic Church in all the countries of the world. Two government officials drove Polycarp to the stadium in their carriage, but pushed him out when he could not be persuaded to renounce his faith. Polycarp walked the rest of the way. When he arrived, he heard a voice from Heaven say to him, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, Polycarp.” The Christians with him also heard this voice. The proconsul ordered Polycarp to curse Jesus. Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the proconsul insisted, Polycarp said, “Since you are so intent that I should swear by the fortunes of Caesar, and since you pretend not to know who or what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them.” The proconsul threatened to have Polycarp killed by wild beasts unless he “repented.” Polycarp bravely answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt what is evil…” Polycarp was then threatened with fire. He said, “You threaten me with fire that burns for an hour and after a little is extinguished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why do you delay? Bring forth what you wish.”

After it was announced that Polycarp confessed that he was a Christian, the crowd shouted for him to be burned to death. Polycarp was made to stand in front of a stake surrounded by piles of wood. He looked toward Heaven and prayed, “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 be counted 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 given by the Holy Spirit. Among them may I be accepted this day before you as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. I praise you for all things. I bless you, I glorify you, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, with Him, to You, and the Holy Spirit, be glory now and forever. Amen.” They set fire to the wood; however, the fire did not kill him or burn him. Instead, it seemed to encircle him and he was described as “appearing bright through the flames.” The spectators, angry that he was not dead, demanded that he be struck with a sword. The executioner quickly did so and Polycarp’s blood put out the flames. Saint Polycarp died on February 23 in the year 155.

During his lifetime, Polycarp was admired by faithful Catholics as a saintly man and was recognized by the Church as a martyr and saint after his death. He is a wonderful role model for bishops as he continually proclaimed the Gospel and Catholic doctrines, strongly opposed heresy, and encouraged the members of the Church to live holy lives. He was a true spiritual father to the people of his diocese. Saint Polycarp’s witness of holiness increased with age. He courageously accepted death as a martyr out of love for Jesus.

Saint Polycarp’s life also reflects the way that older people can share their wisdom with those younger than themselves– giving it to them as a priceless legacy. As a young man, Saint Polycarp was instructed in the Faith by the Apostle Saint John. When Polycarp was an older man, he taught the young Saint Irenaeus what he learned from Saint John. Saint Irenaeus always remembered the special times he shared with Saint Polycarp. Years later, he wrote: “The memory of that time when as a youth I was with Polycarp in Asia Minor is as fresh in my mind as the present. Even now I could point to the place where he sat and taught, and describe his coming and going, his every action, his outward appearance, and his manner of discourse to the people. It seems as though I still heard him tell of his association with the apostle John and with others who saw the Lord, and as though he were still relating to me their words and what he heard from them about the Lord and His miracles….”

Like Saint Polycarp, those senior priests and bishops who have remained faithful and taught the truth of the Catholic Faith for many decades can be wonderful spiritual fathers to younger Catholics. You may meet some of these faithful senior priests if they assist in your parish. Others are living a hidden life in nursing homes. In my experience, they usually welcome Catholic visitors and are happy to hear your confessions, provide spiritual direction, and pray with you. They, like Saint Polycarp, have wisdom to share with us.

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Louise Merrie is a freelance writer on Catholic subjects. Her articles have been published in Catholic Life, Novena Magazine, and the Saint Austin Review. She is the founder of the Community of Mary, Mother of Mercy, an organization in which senior priests and Catholic laity support each other through prayer and friendship in living as disciples of Jesus.

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