Today the Church commemorates one of the most acclaimed figures of its early life, St. Polycarp, bishop and martyr. The greatness of Polycarp’s reputation is really astounding when one considers how little we know of his life. However, the little we do know presents the picture of a man who was truly great in his love and devotion to Christ and the care of His Body, the Church. Given that we have just begun our journey through the Season of Lent, I think we would not go too far wrong in considering Polycarp the perfect patron saint of this Liturgical Season. Polycarp very beautifully embodies the aim which the Church sets before us during this time of entering more deeply into the saving events of the life of Christ. Therefore, attending to the example of his life provides us with a great living Lenten sermon, if you will.
What we do know of Polycarp comes from the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, his own letter to the Church at Philippi, details preserved by Tertullian, Irenaeus, and the Church historian Eusebius, and, finally, the famed account of his martyrdom. Polycarp lived between the first and second centuries (ca. 65-155 AD), and was known to have been friends with the Apostles of Jesus, most especially the Apostle John. In fact, Tertullian relates to us that it was by John that Polycarp had been installed as Bishop of Smyrna. For his part, Irenaeus fondly recalls his memories of Polycarp in a couple of different places. In his letter to Florinus, he expresses how he considered it a grace to have been able to listen to and learned from this man. Recalling episodes from his youth, Irenaeus writes:
…I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse—his going out, too, and his coming in—his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance (Letter to Florinus).
The intimacy of Polycarp with the Apostles is often related in relation to his defense of the true Gospel. In his masterpiece Against Heresies, Irenaeus recounts an episode that pulls a grin across one’s face in reading it due to its candor. It is said that when in Rome on visit, Polycarp had by chance encountered the Gnostic heretic Marcion, who asked Polycarp, “Dost thou know me?” Polycarp is said to have replied: “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan” (Against Heresies, 3.3.4). This was not the only time Polycarp used such blunt language in referring to those who distorted the Gospel message. Citing the First Epistle of St. John’s teaching on the Docetic heresy, Polycarp writes: “To contradict the evidence of the Cross is to be of the devil. And to pervert the Lord’s words to suit our own wishes, by asserting that there are no such things as resurrection or judgment, is to be a first-begotten son of Satan. So let us have no more of this nonsense from the gutter, and these lying doctrines, and turn back again to the Word originally delivered to us” (Letter to the Philippians, 7).
To our ears, it may seem like what Polycarp is engaged in is the same thing we get from many of today’s politicians and pundits. But Polycarp’s words are not written in hatred for another or in defense of some idea or policy. They are words of love that both defend the integrity of the Beloved, and call the wayward to conversion. Proof that Polycarp was not simply engaging in a tawdry smear campaign with those he disagreed with is seen in his advice to the Philippians. When the Church at Philippi faced the unfortunate situation of having to address a less than honest clergyman named Valens (sound familiar), who had apparently stolen money from the Church, Polycarp’s first words are: “My heart is sore for Valens, sometime one of your clergy, that he should have so little understanding of the office that was conferred on him” (Letter to the Philippians, 11). Polycarp goes on to add that he feels “the deepest sorrow for that man and his wife; may the Lord grant them real repentance” (ibid.). Then he exhorts the Philippians: “You too, for your part, must not be over severe with them, for people of that kind are not to be looked on as enemies; you have to restore them, like parts of your own person that are ailing and going wrong, so that the whole body can be maintained in health” (ibid.).
Of course, actions speak louder than words, and Polycarp’s actions have all the attention grabbing power of a thunder clap in the middle of a dark night. Polycarp had learned well a lesson he had been taught by St. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote to Polycarp as he journeyed toward his own martyrdom. “In all circumstances,” Ignatius wrote to him, “be ‘wise as a serpent,’ and perpetually ‘harmless as a dove.’ The reason you have a body as well as a soul is that you may win the favor of the visible world” (Letter to Polycarp, 2). See what Ignatius is saying here, Christians are called to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel so as to be a living testimony to the saving power of God made available to us in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:1-2; Phil. 1:27). Polycarp later impressed the importance of this upon the Philippians in his own letter, saying that they must not be known for the mistreatment of their neighbors under any circumstance, but for the good they do, for in this way they “will avoid bringing the Lord into any disrepute” (Letter to the Philippians, 10).
The words quoted by Irenaeus above describe Polycarp as someone of gravity, of an individual who impressed those around them with his entire way of life, his appearance, his movement, the way he spoke. Irenaeus is describing a person of virtue, and the exemplar who had led, assisted, and formed Polycarp in the life of virtue was none other than Jesus Christ. Polycarp had taught others of the paramount importance of holding nothing back in striving to imitate the life of Christ. “Therefore let us be imitators of his patient endurance, and if we suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him. For he set us this example in his own Person, and this is what we believe” (Letter to the Philippians, 8). Nowhere does the radiance of the virtue that was his in Christ appear more resplendent than in the account of his martyrdom. The author of The Martyrdom of Polycarp has clearly gone out of his way to tell the story in a way so that only the careless reader fails to identify Polycarp as a great imitator of Christ to the point that Christ’s self-sacrificial love is made manifest through him. Polycarp avoids arrest several times before discerning that the offering of his bodily life is the will of God for him (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 5-6; cf. Jn 7:30, Jn 8:20, Jn 10:39), he prophecies his manner of death (Ibid., 5 & 12; cf. Mt 16:21 & Mk 8:31), we find him in the upper room of a farm at the hour of his arrest (tying together the Last Supper taking place in an upper room and Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane) (Ibid., 6), and he enters into Smyrna riding on a donkey (Ibid., 8), to name a few.
These are all mere runway lights leading to the place where Polycarp imitates Christ most perfectly, in his martyrdom. However, while the author wants to impress upon us that Polycarp is a most perfect imitator of Christ, he is also careful to highlight the distinction between Master and disciple, and the dependence of the latter upon the grace given by the former. This is seen in three elements. The officer in charge of Polycarp’s arrest is named Herod. Herod Antipas is, of course, mentioned in the Passion narratives (see Lk 23:6-12), but basically treats Jesus with mockery and indifference. However, the same Herod does put to death the great forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29), whose greatest teaching was that he must decrease and Christ must increase (Jn 3:30). Polycarp’s life holds the same lesson. Second, when the soldiers were about to nail Polycarp to the pyre he was to be burned upon, Polycarp demurred, saying: “…he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from the nails” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 13). In this we see a clear echo of St. Peter, who at the hour of his crucifixion requested to be crucified upside down, feeling unworthy to be put to death in the exact same manner as Christ. We also see Polycarp give clear testimony that what he is able to endure is by the grace of Christ. Finally, the most beautiful way Polycarp’s imitation and distinction from Christ is seen in the prayer he utters at the moment he is put to death. Polycarp’s prayer reads much like the Eucharistic prayers prayed by the priest during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. So much so, in fact, that scholars believe the words Polycarp’s prayer were likely very close to the ones he would have used every day in saying the Mass. Polycarp, however, alters the words slightly so that the prayer speaks eloquently of the sacrifice of love he is about to make in unity with Christ.
I bless thee [Father], because thou hast deemed me worthy this day and hour, to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, for ‘resurrection to eternal life’ of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice…I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, by beloved Servant, through whom be glory to thee with him and Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come. Amen (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 14).
See what is happening here. Polycarp’s lifelong participation in the Eucharist has had the intended effect, it has made him into an authentic member of the Body of Christ, it has made of his own life eucharist. In case we missed this point, the author of his martyrdom makes it clear. He writes that as the flames surrounded Polycarp’s body yet failed to consume it, he “was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace. And we perceived such a sweet aroma as the breath of incense or some other precious spice” (Ibid., 15). Because the inability of the fire to kill Polycarp, he is ultimately put to death with the blow of a dagger, sending forth such a quantity of blood that it was enough to quench the fire that failed to consume him (Ibid., 16). Another distinction between Master and disciple, and a clear indication that the blood shed for love of Christ was more powerful than the hatred that sought to put out the flames of that intense love.
What we see in Polycarp is a life totally transformed by the love of God and conformed perfectly to Christ even to the point of death. However, Polycarp’s martyrdom did not begin on the day he died, it began 86 years before, and it is for this reason that he can serve us well as the patron saint of Lent. When asked to deny Christ, Polycarp answered: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Ibid., 9). So, the question is, from what we know of Polycarp, how did he come to have such a deep and unflinching love for Jesus? The twofold answer that we can identify can give practical guidance for the remainder of our journey through Lent.
The two parts of this answer all have to do with how Polycarp came to know Christ in an ever deeper and more intimate way. First, from the memories of Irenaeus and Polycarp’s own Letter to the Philippians, it is obvious that Polycarp had committed a significant amount of time learning all he could about Christ. Though Polycarp humbly says that his knowledge of the Scriptures is not great (Letter to the Philippians, 12), even a cursory glance at this letter proves otherwise. The letter which is roughly seven pages long contains over 100 scriptural references, Polycarp often weaving the sacred words seamlessly into his own. Moreover, Polycarp not only intimately knew the Scriptures, but also the manner in which the Church had begun to interpret the message of Christ as expressed through its doctrines. This is why we see him so staunchly refute the gnostic and docetic heresies. This is the first lesson we can learn from Polycarp: if we are to become more like Christ we must spend as much time as we can learning about him in Scripture together with how the Church has come to interpret the sacred page over time. When is the last time we sat with a Bible in our hands and seriously read it, seriously prayed over the text? When is the last time we picked up the Catechism, which St. John Paul II described as “a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium” (Apostolic Constitution, Fidei Depositum, 3)? Perhaps these are things to consider adding to our Lenten practices, even if only a half hour each day.
Second, Polycarp was clearly a man of the Eucharist in the fullest sense. What I mean is, not only did Polycarp have a firm faith in the Eucharistic presence of Christ, but so receptive to Christ’s presence was he that the Eucharist had its intended effect in his life: Polycarp’s life became a means of Christ being present to the world because he allowed Christ to live in and through him in the fashion the Apostle Paul writes about (Gal 2:20). Accordingly, we see an interplay of Eucharist and virtue in Polycarp’s life, the Blessed Sacrament functioning as the source and summit of a life thoroughly animated by Christ’s virtues. Thus we see the virtues of humility (Letter to the Philippians, 12), patience (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 2), fortitude (Ibid., 8-14), virtues central to persevering through the 40 days of Lenten ascetic practices shine forth in their full splendor through Polycarp. But, more importantly we see Polycarp display the virtue that is the hallmark of an authentic Christian life, love for enemies (Ibid., 7). Could I suggest that, through prayer, we carry out one of our Lenten practices on behalf of someone who, rightly or wrongly, we consider an enemy? If you think I’m crazy, stop and think, how different would our world be if a significant number of us did this? Society would become, dare I say, much more Christlike very quickly.
This Lent let us beseech the Holy Spirit to provide us the grace to pursue the imitation of Christ with the ardor and resolve we see at work in the life of Polycarp. In this way we do something of the utmost significance, for in being conformed to Christ we truly make His life and love known to the world. The Second Vatican Council taught that believers bear a certain responsibility for the rise of atheism in our society “to the extent that they neglect their own training in faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion” (Gaudium et Spes, 19). The Council puts its finger on something that Polycarp’s life gives beautiful witness to. People don’t fall in love with doctrines, people fall in love with people. For two thousand years people have been falling in love with Christ by first falling in love with Christians who allowed Christ to live in and through them. We must be the message of love people fall in love with so that they might ultimately fall in love with Christ. This is what the Apostles did for Polycarp and what Polycarp in turn did for people like Ignatius (Letter to Polycarp, 1) Irenaeus, and even for us today as we recall his memory. Today the memory of Polycarp calls us to do the same for one another and the world around us today: “By the grace which you have put on, I urge you to press forward in your race and to urge everybody to be saved” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Polycarp, 1).
Your Servant in Christ,