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St. Polycarp.

"I have served Christ for 86 years," claimed Polycarp at his trial, thus providing a clue for first-century practice of infant baptism, not formally attested until Tertullian's (c.160-225) treatise On Baptism.

Irenaeus of Lyon (c.130-200) reminisces over the aged Polycarp's 'camp-fire tales' of being a pupil of St John and hearing stories of The Lord from other Apostles.

Eusebius dates Polycarp's martyrdom to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-80), either 166 or 169. According to the Church of Smyrna's official Letter, "He was arrested when Statius Quadratus was the Proconsul, but Jesus Christ was reigning for ever," this finale combatively replacing the expected formal mention of the incumbent emperor. An undated inscription confirms Quadratus' tenure in this general period. He was probably Consul in 142. The Emperor then was Antoninus Pius (138-161), described by the third-century pagan historian Dio Cassius as "showing the Christians great respect."

Eusebius describes Asia under Marcus Aurelius as "thrown into confusion by the most savage persecutions in which Polycarp found fulfillment in martyrdom." However, an emperor could not control everything, certainly not local anti-Christian outbreaks; Eusebius indeed notices the martyrdom of Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome, in Pius' first year.

Whatever the year, this "wonderful and apostolic man" (Eusebius) was executed by sword after an unsuccessful burning in the Smyrna arena on February 23 (his Feast Day): "We were privileged to witness a marvellous sight. Like a billowing sail, the fire protected the martyr, and we smelled not burning flesh but a wonderful fragrance, resembling a breath of frankincense."

Apart from the Smyrna Church's Letter and Eusebius, Polycarp's memory was kept green through the (lost) Lord's Gospel written by his friend and fellow-pupil of John, Bishop Papias of Hierapolis. It is a compliment that one of the Letters penned c.500 by pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite should be addressed to him.

Iraenaeus says Polycarp himself "wrote either to neighbouring Churches to fortify them, or to individuals with advice and encouragement." Only his Epistle to the Philippians has survived (almost wholly in Latin, partly in Greek). It achieved some eclat, being included in a small volume of Clement's two Letters to the Corinthians, the format in which it was read by the Byzantine Patriarch Photius, who praises both his style and wisdom.

Ignatius commends Polycarp for pacifying the Church at Antioch, Irenaeus for his conciliation of the Roman community over the celebration of Easter dispute. Urged by Ignatius to combat heresies, Polycarp took on the Marcionites and Valentinians; his refutations may be echoed in Basil's Letter (no.261) to the Sozopolitans.

He also followed Ignatian precepts to promote sexual morality--chastity was exalted, marriage tolerated--and give due care to wives, widows, and slaves. At this time, the emperors Nerva and Trajan were developing such welfare policies, possibly a response to Paul's emphasis at 1 Corinthians 13.

Later, the emperor Julian complained that pagans were "out-charitied" by the Christians, and philanthropy would be the greatest acknowledged virtue of the Church.

Polycarp's Letter is otherwise an important source for the evolution of Christian literature. Albeit not mentioning any Gospels collection, he does refer to one of Paul's Letters, while his quoting of 1 John 4:3 bears witness to an early New Testament.

The Church of Smyrna's Letter is the earliest account of Christian martydom, also the first evidence of honouring martyrs with special feasts and calendars, practices which along with the Eucharist were misunderstood or misrepresented in the attack on them by the consular orator Fronto, tutor of the persecuting Marcus Aurelius.

Polycarp himself, through both his long life and brave death, is a key connection between the Apostolic Age and the great explosion of Christian writing (Greek and Latin) in the second and third centuries-in Ignatius' words, "God's athlete."

Further Reading: Texts and translations of Polycarp's Martyrdom and Letter in (e.g.) Kirsopp Lake's The Apostolic Fathers (Loeb Classical Library) and H.Musurillo's Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Modern studies include Blomfield Jackson's St Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (2001) and the various articles of W.R.Schoedel. 'Googling' yields 14,600 sites, including his entry in The Catholic Encyclopaedia.

The following is taken from the breviary of February for the feast day of St. Polycarp.

From the letter on the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp by the Church of Smyrna

(Cap. 13, 2--15,2: Funk 1, 297-299)

A rich and pleasing sacrifice

When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honour in tribute to his holiness of life.

There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said: "Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails." So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails but only fastened him instead. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for the sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.

Looking up to heaven, he said: "Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of power, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise.

"I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through him be the glory to you, together with him and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen."

When he said "Amen" and finished the prayer, the officials at the pyre lit it. But, when a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others. Like a ship's sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr's body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet smelling gum.

The completion of this account is taken from Butler's Lives of the Saints, the old edition which lists Polycarp still under January 28. Rather than a dry, scholarly account, the author also indicates what he thinks of the perpetrators.

The blind infidels were only exasperated to see his body could not be consumed, and ordered a spearman to pierce him through, which he did, and such a quantity of blood issued out of his left side as to quench the fire. The malice of the devil ended not here: he endeavoured to obstruct the relics of the martyr being carried off by the Christians; for many desired to do it to show their respect to his body. Therefore, by the suggestion of Satan, Nicetes advised the proconsul not to bestow it on the Christians, lest, said he, abandoning the crucified man, they should adore Polycarp. The Jews suggested this, "not knowing," say the authors of the acts, "that we can never forsake Christ, nor adore any other, though we love the martyrs, as his disciples and imitators, for the great love they bore their king and master."

The centurion, seeing a contest raised by the Jews, placed the body in the middle, and burnt it to ashes. "We afterwards took up the bones," say they, "more precious than the richest jewels or gold, and deposited them decently in a place at which my God grant us to assemble with joy....

Barry Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Calgary.
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Title Annotation:Fathers Of The Church II
Author:Baldwin, Barry
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:May 1, 2004
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