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St. Polycarp

Rectory, St. Stephen's Stained glass. Detail: St. Polycarp By Our Lady of Peace Geneva from Geneva, NY (St. Polycarp Uploaded by jbribeiro1) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Rectory, St. Stephen's Stained glass. Detail: St. Polycarp
Although not as well known in modern times as some other saints who have come after him, Polycarp was nonetheless a major figure in the Church of the second century A.D. Born just 36 years after the death of Jesus, Polycarp’s leadership as the Bishop of Smyrna and his courage under persecution proved both inspiring and vital to the fledgling faith communities of Asia Minor.
 
What little information we have on his early life seems to indicate that he was a friend of St. John the Apostle, who it is believed converted Polycarp to the Christian faith; thus he was only one step removed from having known Christ Himself. He is also closely connected to at least two other influential saints of the period — St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was an early bishop and martyr, and St. Irenaeus of Lyon, a theologian who successfully refuted the Gnostic heresy, which Polycarp also fought against.
 
Like St. John, Polycarp lived a long and fruitful life. A prolific letter writer, only one of his epistles, written to the Church at Philippi, has survived. In it he emphasized both adherence to the true doctrines of the Church and an exhortation to holiness by “word and example.” The letter is also interesting to scholars in as much as it contains quotes from the New Testament, indicating that many of its passages were already in existence and that Polycarp was familiar with them.
 
As Bishop of Smyrna, he was chosen by the Church in Asia Minor to represent them in discussions with Pope Anicetus concerning the proper date of the Easter celebration; this was a serious ecclesiastical dispute at the time and the date observed in Asia differed from that observed in Rome. Though the two men did not settle definitively on a single date, they did agree to honor each other’s and parted in peace.
 
The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom in 155 is the earliest, fully preserved and reliable account of the death of an early Christian martyr in existence. At the age of 86, during the reign of the Emperor Aurelius Caesar, Polycarp was rounded up by Roman soldiers and brought to the stadium at Smyrna to be burned alive. Due to his advanced age, the official in charge tried to get Polycarp to deny his faith and thus save his life. This the saint refused to do; instead, he declared, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any wrong. How can I now blaspheme my king and God?”
 
Eyewitnesses then reported that, although a fire was lit at the feet of the saint, it miraculously arced up around him; the flames did him no harm. Ultimately, he was killed with a dagger and his body was ordered to be burned so that there would be nothing left for the Christian faithful to revere.
 
Acknowledged as a saint due to his holiness and his martyrdom, St. Polycarp’s feast day is Feb. 23. He is the patron saint of those suffering from earaches.
 
Last modified onThursday, 19 October 2017 12:56
Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester lives and works in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

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