By Ian Wilson (Rated G)
St. Polycarp was one of the earliest church leaders after the death of the original twelve apostles, having been taught by St. John himself. He was the bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor; one of the churches started by the Apostle Paul.
Polycarp was known to be a wise and virtuous leader of the church, well respected by his contemporaries, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Ireneaus of Lyons. It is believed that he was the “angel” (messenger or preacher) of the church of Smyrna whom our Lord addressed in Revelation, exhorting him to continue in his holy life through tribulation. And continue he did.
Polycarp endured persecution, not seeking martyrdom as some in his time did, but tried to live as long as he could to serve the faithful and convert the heathen. He handled disagreements with Pope Anicetus with grace and tact. While they disagreed on certain matters, such as the date and manner of the celebration of Easter, they never doubted the sincerity of the others’ faith. Meanwhile, Polycarp vehemently opposed the gnostic heretics of his day.
Polycarp found himself caught up in an intense period of persecution during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The pagan citizens were out for blood, particularly Polycarp’s, and the proconsul, Statius Quadratus, was bound to deliver. As a result, Polycarp’s followers hid him away in a farmhouse, where he spent the night in prayer. This did not last forever; the proconsul, having arrested a young Christian man, tortured him into revealing Polycarp’s location.
With that, the Proconsul dispatched two soldiers to arrest Polycarp, but rather than resist, the saint instead served them a meal, asking them for one hour to pray before they took him away. The men agreed; more than that, they allowed him to pray for an hour extra. Polycarp, rather than pray for himself, prayed for every person he had ever crossed paths with, both small and great.
The soldiers then took Polycarp to the proconsul, who urged him to renounce Christ and swear by the emperor. Polycarp bravely refused to forsake his Lord. The proconsul gave Polycarp every chance to renounce his faith, even as they brought him into the arena to be eaten by wild beasts. A voice from heaven told Polycarp to “be courageous; act like a man.” And so he did.
The proconsul, driven to near madness with anger, ordered Polycarp to be burned at the stake, but the fire would not touch him. Some reported the smell of frankincense emanating from the flames. Exasperated, one of the pagan executioners ran Polycarp through with a spear, thus extinguishing his life on earth and sending him to his eternal reward.
May we all be courageous and act as bravely as Polycarp did.