Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna
Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna (today known as Izmir), a city on the west coast of Turkey. The letters to the “seven churches in Asia” at the beginning of the book of Revelation include a letter to the church in Smyrna, identifying it as a church undergoing persecution.
Polycarp is said to have known the Apostle John, and to have been instructed by him in the Christian faith. Polycarp, in his turn, was known to Irenaeus, who later became Bishop of Lyons in what is now France. We have (1) Irenaeus’s brief memoir of Polycarp; (2) a letter to Polycarp from Ignatius of Antioch, written around 115 AD when Ignatius was passing through Turkey, being sent in chains to Rome to be put to death; (3) a letter from Polycarp to the church at Philippi, written at the same time; and (4) an account of the arrest, trial, conviction, and martyrdom of Polycarp, written after his death by one or more members of his congregation.
Polycarp was denounced to the government, arrested, and tried on the charge of being a Christian. When the proconsul urged him to save his life by cursing Christ, he replied: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The magistrate was reluctant to kill a a gentle old man, but he had no choice.
Polycarp was sentenced to be burned. As he waited for the fire to be lighted, he prayed:
Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved
child Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of
you, God of angels and hosts and all creation, and of the whole
race of the upright who live in your presence: I bless you
that you have thought me worthy of this day and hour, to be
numbered among the martyrs and share in the cup of Christ, for
resurrection to eternal life, for soul and body in the
incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among them may I be
accepted before you today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice,
just as you, the faithful and true God, have prepared and
foreshown and brought about. For this reason and for all things
I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal
heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved child, through
whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for
the ages to come. Amen.
The fire was then lit and shortly thereafter a soldier stabbed Polycarp to death by order of the magistrate. His friends gave his remains honorable burial, and wrote an account of his death to other churches.
~Image: Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: “Procession of the Holy Martyrs” – a detail: St. Polycarp. The work was completed within 526 AD by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare”.