Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Feast of St Polycarp

Among the group of early Christian writers known as the Apostolic Fathers, St Polycarp, whose feast is kept today on the traditional Roman calendar, is the one about whom we know the most. He was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, who appointed him bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and the teacher of St Irenaeus of Lyon, who wrote the following about him to the Gnostic heretic Florinus.

“I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which happened recently, for what we learn as children grows up with the soul and is united to it, so that I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourses which he made to people, how he reported his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, and about their miracles, and about their teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures.”

Ss Polycarp, Vincent of Saragossa, Pancratius and Chrysogonus; from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, 6th century. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)
Then, in regard to the absurd teachings of the Gnostics, he says “I can bear witness before God that if that blessed and apostolic presbyter had heard anything of this kind, he would have cried out, and shut his ears, and said according to his custom, ‘O good God, to what time hast thou preserved me that I should endure this?’ He would have fled even from the place in which he was seated or standing when he heard such words.” (This continues the tradition of St John, who fled from a public bath when he saw the heretic Cerinthus inside, lest the building fall upon them.) Likewise, while in Rome to discuss the dating of Easter with Pope St Anicetus, St Polycarp met the heretic Marcion, who asked him if he knew him, to which the Saint replied “I know the first-born of the devil.”

In addition to these stories preserved in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea (5, 20 & 24; 4, 14), there also exist a letter of St Ignatius of Antioch written to Polycarp, whom he also mentions in two of his other letters, and Polycarp’s own letter to the church of Philippi, which St Jerome records was still read in the churches of Asia in his own time. This letter begins with a commendation of the Philippians for their devotion to the martyrs.

“I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because you have followed the example of true love [as displayed by God], and have accompanied, as became you, those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God and our Lord.”

Of Polycarp himself, it is also recorded that he met St Ignatius as the latter passed though Smyrna on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and kissed his chains.

The martyrdom of Polycarp is recorded in a letter sent by the church of Smyrna to that of Philomelium and “to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place.” This letter is the first authentic account of an early Christian martyrdom after that of St Stephen’s in the Acts of the Apostles. The Saint was very elderly at the time of his arrest and condemnation, for he himself says when ordered to trample on an image of reproach Christ, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

When he was sentenced to be burned alive, the soldiers were going to nail him to the pyre, at which he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.” He was therefore only bound with ropes, “like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God.” The letter also records his prayer spoken before the pyre was lit.

“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 have a part 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 [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”

However, once the fire was set, it billowed out around Polycarp “in form of a sail” and although he seemed “like gold or silver glowing in a furnace,” would not consume him. This is one of many famous examples of the refusal by Nature itself to cooperate with the persecutors of God’s Saints, forcing them to take the matter into their own hands, and accept responsibility for the evil which they do. At this, his side was pierced with a dagger, and the flow of blood that came forth was so great that the flames were extinguished.


The official in charge refused to allow the Christians to take the body for burial, but rather had it cremated, the standard pagan practice; this was certainly done in despite of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Nevertheless, the Christians of Smyrna “took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.” (Fr Hunwicke rightly noted in an article this past November that “the current post-conciliar Roman regulations do not permit the use within altars of such relics as the tiny fragments gathered up by those who loved S Polycarp,” as described in this beautiful passage, a particularly grotesque example of the betrayal of ‘ressourcement.’)

It is an oddity of hagiography that although St Polycarp and his martyrdom are so early and so well-documented, his feast is not an ancient one in the West. It is attested at Rome in the mid-13th century, but missing from printed editions of the Roman Missal and Breviary as late as the 1520s. His place on the calendar was only solidified in the Tridentine liturgical books, which were very much concerned to assert the continuity of Catholic tradition (such as the veneration of relics) with the most ancient days of the Christian faith.

In the post-Conciliar reform, his feast was moved to the day of his death, February 23rd, on which it is also kept in the Eastern Rites. The notes of the Consilium ad exsequendam on the reform of the calendar say that his feast was originally assigned to January 26 in the West by confusion with another saint of the same name, Polycarp of Nicea. I assume that this is stated in good faith and for a good reason, but I can find no evidence for this; no such person is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology or its Byzantine equivalent, the Synaxarion, on any day. (The Bollandists state more cautiously that the reason for the discrepancy is not clear.)

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