On the 23rd of the month, we keep the Memory of the
blessed Hieromartyr POLYCARP, Bishop of SMYRNA
Saint Polycarp was born at Ephesus about the year 70 in the time of the Emperor Vespasian. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, who was his disciple, says that the glorious Polycarp was “a disciple of the Apostles and acquainted with those who had seen the Lord.”
His holy parents, before fulfilling their martyrdom, had entrusted their son to Callista, a devout and noble lady, who brought him up in the fear of God and love of the holy virtues. Moved to compassion, the child was so thorough in carrying out the commandment of almsgiving that he would empty his adoptive mother’s pantry to feed the poor. Since time and again her provisions were miraculously renewed, Callista changed his name from Pancratius to Polycarp, meaning ‘abundant fruit’.
When Polycarp grew up, he became a disciple of Saint John the Theologian, who was proclaiming the Good News in the province of Asia, together with Saint Bucolus (6 Feb.) and Saint Ignatius the Godbearer (20 Dec.). Imbued with the teaching of the Beloved
Disciple and with everything that could bring the Lord’s life to remembrance, Polycarp eagerly shared all his tribulations prior to his exile on Patmos.
When Saint John consecrated Bucolus as bishop of the illustrious city of Smyrna, he appointed Polycarp as his assistant and fellow worker. On reaching Smyrna, Polycarp
was ordained priest and given charge of the orphans, a responsibility that he fulfilled until the day when Saint Bucolus, aware that his own death was at hand, designated the humble Polycarp as his successor.
As shepherd of the Church of Smyrna, Polycarp walked exactly in the footsteps of his fathers. He rehearsed their words with fidelity, and those which they had received from the mouth of the Lord Himself. From his exile on Patmos, Saint John addressed praises to the Angel of the Church of Smyrna, encouraging him to be faithful unto death in order to receive the crown of eternal life (Rev. 2:10).
Clothed in divine grace, Polycarp wrought many miracles. By his prayer, he put out a fire that had raged over the countryside for a week; he brought welcome rain to end a long drought; he delivered the possessed and healed the sick, so that, thanks to him, a great many pagans were converted.
Polycarp had not long been a bishop when (c. 101) Saint Ignatius passed through Smyrna in chains on his way to Rome, where he was to be delivered to the beasts. He embraced Polycarp with joy and wrote to him on reaching Troas, to thank him for his hospitality and to commit the Church of Antioch to his care. At the same time, he conveyed to him these divinely inspired counsels on the duties of a pastor:
“I glorify the Lord for having accounted me worthy of contemplating your blameless countenance. Justify your dignity as bishop by tile thoroughness of your care for flesh and spirit. Let your first concern be unity, for there is nothing to be preferred to it. Bear patiently with all the brethren as the Lord bears with you. Carry the infirmities of everyone like a trained athlete. The present time is crying out for you in order to obtain
God, as the pilot prays for the wind, and the storm-tossed mariner the harbour.”
Saint Polycarp wrote subsequently to the Christians of Philippi to congratulate them on their welcome to Ignatius and the Martyrs: “Images of true love whom you escorted as was fitting, bound in those chains worthy of the Saints, which are the diadems of such
as have been truly chosen by God.”
He exhorts the Philippians to continue in the tong-suffering that they have seen in the Martyrs, and he sets out for them the animating principles of a loving Christian community:
“Faith is the mother of us all; it is the well-spring of hope and it is proceeded by love of God, of Christ and of neighbour. Whoever dwells in these virtues has fulfilled the precepts of Righteousness, for whoever has charity is far from all sin.”
He led his Church in this truly apostolic way for more than fifty years. About the year 154, as an old man full of years, he travelled to Rome to consult Pope Anacletus all the defense of the true faith against heresies, and about the controversy between Rome and the Churches of Asia over the date of Easter. His teaching and his radiant holiness brought about the conversion of many of the souls led astray by the heretics Valentinus and Marcion. Just before Polycarp left Rome, the Pope, in deference, let him preside at the Eucharistic Synaxis. Having exchanged a holy kiss, they parted in peace and with mutual respect for legitimate differences between local Churches.
Soon after his return to Smyrna, all the churches of Asia endured the fierce persecution unleashed by the Proconsul Stratius Quadratus. It was then that a group of twelve Christians from Philadelphia fulfilled their martyrdom. They were followed by
Saint Polycarp, who on Holy Saturday, at the age of eighty-six, met a glorious death like unto the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. While the valiant Philadelphian Martyrs were suffering torments of all kinds for the sake of Christ before being thrown as food to the
beasts, the most venerable Polycarp retained his customary serenity and was unwilling to leave the city and his spiritual flock. However, he deferred to the pleas of his companions not to expose himself to death before the time and withdrew to a small farm not far from the city. There he prayed night and day for the whole of mankind
and for the Churches throughout the world.
Three days before his arrest he was standing in prayer when he had a vision of his pillow
ablaze. Turning towards those with him, he told them calmly that he was soon to give his life for Christ by fire. The whereabouts of Saint Polycarp were revealed under torture
by a young slave, and on Good Friday evening his pursuers burst into a second farmhouse in which he had just taken refuge. Refusing to flee, the Bishop welcomed them with a gentle, cheerful countenance. He ordered them to be served with a good meal and they agreed to allow him some time to pray. The old man stood for two hours, filled with the Grace of God, commemorating all the people that he had known, great or small, together with the Church throughout the world. When the time came to leave, the soldiers, sad at having to arrest such a venerable old man, set him on a donkey in order to take him to the city. The chief of police, aptly named Herod, went on ahead. He took Polycarp into his carriage on the way and tried to persuade him to sacrifice to Caesar. Seeing that his efforts were in vain, he threw him out of the vehicle so suddenly that the Saint hurt his shin as he alighted, but still made his way vigorously on foot.
As he entered the stadium full of a bawling, bloodthirsty crowd, there came a voice from heaven addressed to the Saint and heard only by the Christians amid the tumult: “Have courage Polycarp, and act like a man!” The Proconsul urged him to deny Christ, saying: “Have pity on your old age,” and other things that the persecutors used to say like: “Swear by Caesar’s fortune” and say “Down with the atheists!'” Gazing at the crowd of pagans who filled the amphitheater, Polycarp replied with a sigh: ‘Yes, indeed, down
with the atheists!” On being called on to curse Christ, he answered:
“For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has never done me any harm. How could I blaspheme my King and Saviour? I have wild animals and I shall throw you to them unless you change your mind,” said the Proconsul. “Bring them on,” Polycarp answered, “for it is impossible for us to change our mind from the better to the worse, while it is good to change from evil to righteousness.” “Since you despise the beasts, I shall have you burned, unless you change your mind,” the Proconsul told him. Full of courage and joy, Polycarp replied: “You are threatening me with a fire that burns for a short time and then goes out, while you know nothing of the fire of the judgement to come and of the everlasting torment awaiting the wicked. But why wait any longer? Do whatever you will!”
After the crier had announced three times that Polycarp had declared himself a Christian, the crowd, roused to anger, demanded that a lion be turned loose on him. But, advised that the time for combat with beasts had passed, they shouted: “Let Polycarp be burned alive!” The pagans and the Jews then rushed to collect sticks and firewood from nearby baths and workshops. When they had made ready the pyre in the middle of the arena, Polycarp took off his clothes as calmly as though he were serving the holy Liturgy, and he attempted to take off his shoes, a thing he had never done, for the faithful would always crowd round him eager to kiss his feet. When they were about to nail him to the stake, he said: “Let me be. For he who gives me the strength to endure the flames will also help me to remain steadfast at the stake.”
Placed on the wood like a choice whole burnt-offering, he raised his eyes heavenward and, in a final prayer, gave thanks to God for having deemed him worthy of sharing with all the holy Martyrs in the cup of Christ unto resurrection and everlasting life in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.
When he had pronounced his Amen, the executioners lit the fire. All at once, a great flame arose which, taking the form of a vault or of a sail swollen by the wind, made a marvelous wall around the Martyr’s body. He stood in the midst, not as burning
flesh but as baking bread or as gold and silver gleaming in the furnace, and sending forth a delightful scent as of incense or some other costly perfume.
Seeing that the fire would not consume the Saint’s body, those evil men ordered one of the executioners to stab him with a dagger. At this, his blood flowed so freely that it put out the fire, to the amazement of the onlookers. The precious relics of the Martyr were burnt at the instigation of the Jews, but the faithful succeeded in gathering some
fragments of bone which they laid in a suitable place, to which every year, on the anniversary of his birthday in heaven, they would resort in order to keep a joyful feast. The glorious martyrdom of Saint Polycarp set a seal for a time on the persecution of
The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church
By HIEROMONK MAKARIOS OF SIMONOS PETRA
Translated from the French by Christopher Hookway
Holy Convent of The Annunciation of Our Lady
Ormylia (Chalkidike) 2001