Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr
Amidst the sweetness he is enjoying from the contemplation of the Word made Flesh, John, the Beloved Disciple, beholds coming towards him his dear Polycarp, the Angel of the Church of Smyrna (Apoc. ii. 8), all resplendent with the glory of martyrdom. This venerable Saint has on his soul the fervent love that made him say, in the amphitheatre, when asked by the Proconsul to curse his Divine Master: “Six-and-eighty years have I served Him, and He has never done me any wrong–nay, He has laden me with kindness. How could I blaspheme my King, who has saved me?” After having suffered fire and the sword, he was admitted into the presence of this King, his Saviour, in reward for the eighty-six years of his faithful service, for the labours he had gone through in order to maintain faith and charity among his flock, and for the cruel death he endured.
He was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, whom he imitated by zealously opposing the heretics, who were then striving to corrupt the faith. In obedience to the command of his holy Master (II. St. John, i. 10), he refused to hold intercourse with Marcion, the heresiarch, whom he called the first-born of Satan. This energetic adversary of the proud sect, that denied the mystery of the Incarnation, wrote an admirable Epistle to the Philippians, in which we find these words: Whosoever confesses not that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, is an Antichrist. Polycarp, then, had a right to the honour of standing near the Crib, in which the Son of God shows Himself to us in all His loveliness, and clothed in flesh like unto our own. Let us honour this disciple of John, this friend of Ignatius, this Bishop of the Apostolic Age, whose praise was pronounced by Jesus Christ himself, in the Revelations of Patmos. Our Saviour said to him by the mouth of Saint John: Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life (Apoc. ii. 10). Polycarp was faithful even unto death, and has received his crown; and whilst we are celebrating the coming of his King among us, he is one of the Saints who assist us to profit of the holy season.
The Church gives us a passage from St. Jerome’s book, On Ecclesiastical Writers, in which there is contained the following short notice of our holy Martyr.
Polycarpus. a disciple of the Apostle John, who ordained him Bishop of Smyrna, was looked up to by all the Churches of Asia, inasmuch as he had not only known some of the Apostles, and those who had seen our Lord, but had been trained by them. He went to Rome, during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, and under the Pontificate of Anicetus, in order to have an answer to certain questions regarding Easter-day. Whilst there, he brought back to the faith several Christians who had been misled by the teaching of Marcion and Valentine. Having, on a certain occasion, casually met Marcion, who said to him: “Dost thou know us? Polycarp replied: “Yea, I know thee as the first-born of Satan.” Some time after, under the reign of Marcus-Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, in the fourth persecution after that under Nero, he was cited before the Proconsul of Smyrna, who condemned him to be burnt alive; which sentence was carried into effect in the amphitheatre, amidst the clamours of the whole people. He wrote an important Letter to the Philippians, which is still read in the Churches of Asia.
How well didst thou bear out the full meaning of thy name, O Polycarp! for thou didst produce many fruits for thy Saviour, during thy six-and-eighty years spent in his service. The numerous souls won over to Christ, the virtues which adorned thy life, and thy life itself, which thou didst present to thy Lord in its full maturity–these were thy fruits. And what happiness was thine, to have received instruction from the Disciple that leaned upon Jesus’ Breast! After being separated from him for more than sixty years, thou art united with him on this the day of thy martyrdom, and thy venerable master receives thee in a transport of joy. Thou adorest, with him, that Divine Babe, whose simplicity thou hadst imitated during life, and who was the single object of thy love. Ask of him, for us, that we, too, may be Faithful unto death.
Fertilise by thy prayers, now that thou art throned in heaven, the vineyard of the Church, which, when on earth, thou didst cultivate by thy labours, and water with the blood of thy glorious martyrdom. Re-establish faith and unity in the Churches of Asia, which were founded by thy venerable hand. Hasten, by thy prayers, the destruction of that degrading slavery of Mahometanism, which has kept the East in bondage so long, because her once faithful children severed themselves from Rome, by the great schism of Byzantium. Pray for the Church of Lyons, which regards thee as its founder, through the ministry of thy disciple Pothinus, and takes itself so glorious a share in the apostolate of the Gentiles, by the Work of the Propagation of the Faith.
Watch over the purity of our holy Faith, and preserve us from being deceived by false teachers. The error which thou didst combat, and which teaches that all the mysteries of the Incarnation are but empty symbols, has risen up again in these our days. There are Marcions, even now, who would reduce all religion to myths; and they find some few followers; may thy powerful prayers rid the world of this remnant of so impious a doctrine. Thou didst pay homage to the Apostolic Chair, for thou, too, wouldst see Peter, and didst journey to Rome, in order to consult its Pontiff on questions regarding the interests of thy Church of Smyrna. Defend the rights of this august See, whence alone are derived both the jurisdiction of our Pastors, and the authoritative teachings of Faith. Pray for us, that we may spend the remaining days of this holy Season in the contemplation and the love of our new-born King. May this love, accompanied with purity of heart, draw down upon us the merciful blessings of our God, and at length, after our course is run, obtain for us the Crown of Life. Amen
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.