Bishop of Smyrna and 86 years a Christiani St. Polycarp stands alongside St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Clement of Rome(the future Pope Clement I and 3rd successor of St.Peter) as one of the few known Apostolic Fathers.
Born around 70 A.Dii the saint is said to have been a pupil of St. John the Apostle!
St. Irenaeus who in turn was St. Polycarp’s disciple, gives us an enviable account of the saint in his writings:
“I could describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and taught;
his going out and coming in; the whole tenor of his life; his personal appearance; how he would speak of the conversations he had held with John and with others who had seen the Lord. How did he make mention of their words and of whatever he had heard from them respecting the Lord.” iii
All in all, the infancy narratives of the Church do not seem to leave us with a whole lot of data about his life, but what we do have is an encyclical epistle from the Church at Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium giving an elaborate account of the saints martyrdom and a letter written by the saint to the Church at Phillipi (yes, another “Letter to the Philippians”).
5 points that I picked out from the writings mentioned above and from the life of this Saint are:
- Bible Study is cool
Something that one encounters when skimming through the pages of the New Testament is how central a role the Scriptures play in lives and ministry of Jesus and his disciples. It seems that St. Polycarp and the rest of the Early Chuch picked up that tradition and looked to the Scriptures as a source of nourishment to the faith.
So, apart from his Letter to the Phillipians being completely peppered by Old Testament Scriptures and more so, recently penned down New Testament writings, he gives the Phillipians some words of advice that could hold good as a general exhortation to Scripture study for us today.
“[St. Paul]… wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you…” (St.Polycarp, Letter to the Phillipians 3:22)iv
- Christ the strength of the martyrs
St. Polycarp’s life ends with his glorious martyrdom. After miraculously remaining unscathed in the fire that was supposed to consume him, his evil executioners finally take away his life by piercing him with a dagger.v
Martyrdom is not something unheard of in this century and in the face of persecution one would like to look to the early Church as a source of inspiration.
How did the martyrs endure all the tortures?
The Encyclical to the Church at Philomelium sets forth the faith of the early Church in no uncertain terms,
“All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God…those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, II)vi
- There’s always time for a cup of tea!
While many of us might not need an Apostolic exhortation to the above mentioned point, the setting in which this occurs displays the saints remarkable hospitality and depth of spirituality.
His pursuers have finally found him and are ready to take him to his eventual martyrdom. St. Polycarp on meeting them however, ventures to do them a good deed and invites them to eat and drink to their hearts content!vii
This gesture for me discloses the saints calm interior, strong faith and trustful surrender to the workings of Divine Providence.
- You have just a little while left to live…what’s the last thing you want to do?
An answer to a question like this might reveal what’s most important to us and what our heart is really set on.
As for St. Polycarp his desire was to pray for an hour without disturbance. viii
- Eucharistic centered spirituality
Scholars have studied the words St. Polycarp prayed as he was being martyred.
[The prayer] has affinities with Eucharistic prayers of a later date. With a slight adjustment of the text it might be taken as a representative of the type of Eucharistic consecration prayer in use in Smyrna in the middle of the second century.ix
I find it very fascinating that St. Polycarp who might have so frequently celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass would now at the time of his sacrifice find strength and refuge in the words of consecration used at mass.
An excerpt from the prayer:
“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ… I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the in corruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost…” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, XIV)x
It makes me question myself. How authentic and Eucharist centered is my spirituality? How much have I found these words of Jesus to be true in my life?
“Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” John 6:57 NRSV
St. Polycarp remains one of the key early Church figures to whom we owe a whole lot more than we know. Not only did he hand down to us the faith he received from the Apostles but fighting till the very end he remains a beacon of light and a source of inspiration to us all.
St. Polycarp, pray for us!