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SAINT POLYCARP

Bishop and Martyr, -156

Early Christians celebrated the anniversary of a martyr's death by reading an account of his sufferings. These stories were sometimes copies of official records, sometimes reports of eyewitnesses. Many were merely devotional works that contained little fact and tended to sentimentalize the character of the saint. There is no sentimentality in the account of Saint Polycarp's martyrdom, which has fortunately been preserved. It was composed by a man named Marcion for the Church of Smyrna, as a monument to the beloved bishop from his grateful flock. This account is one of the most authentic on record. The character of Polycarp remains intact: be emerges as man, priest, and saint.

Polycarp was born during the latter half of the first century, probably between the years 70 and 80. As a young man he was converted to Christianity and became a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist. Later, John consecrated him bishop of Smyrna, a city on the west coast of Asia Minor. About the year 107, when Saint Ignatius of Antioch traveled through Smyrna on his way to Rome, Polycarp met this bishop, and a warm friendship developed.

About the year 155, Polycarp journeyed to Rome confer with Pope Anicetus. Upon his return to Smyrna Polycarp found the city in the throes of persecution. Hoping to save their bishop, the Christians persuaded him to flee to the country, and Polycarp humbly obeyed. However, his hiding place was betrayed by a young slave, and Polycarp was arrested and brought before the pagan authorities.

When the proconsul demanded that Polycarp deny Christ, the bishop quietly answered: "I have been serving Him eighty-six years and He has never harmed me. How then dare I blaspheme my King who has saved me?" This simple declaration of faith caused his death. Deciding to burn him at the stake, the angered pagans rushed out to gather wood for a fire. His hands tied behind him, the old bishop calmly mounted the pyre and, Uttering a prayer, watched the flames swirl higher and higher about him. But miraculously Polycarp remained unharmed, and an attendant was summoned to kill him with a dagger. This accomplished, his body was burned to prevent veneration. According to eyewitnesses Polycarp's martyrdom occurred on February 22, 156.

Only two of Polycarp's epistles have been preserved Both are addressed to the Philippians. They are authentic works, but the dates of their composition have never been determined. The first epistle was occasioned by the Philippians' request that Polycarp forward a letter to Saint Ignatius, who had recently left Smyrna. The second epistle praises the people of Philippi for their faith and love in honoring the martyrs. It contains comments on the proper conduct for Christian wives, deacons, young men and women. Two ideas dominant in the work are characteristic of the gentle bishop who wrote them: one must shun avarice as the root of all evil and, above all, remain pure in faith.

 

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