St. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna is regarded together with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, as one of the apostolic Fathers. The sole surviving work attributed to his authorship is his letter to the Philippians, recorded also by Irenaeus of Lyons. The name Polycarp means „the one who bears much fruit”.
He suffered the martyrical death for Christ on February 23 in the year 155, 159, 166 or even 180, during the persecution of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138—161), or according to Jerome, during Marcus Aurelius (168-180), by being burnt in the arena of the capital city of Asia, being burned in the capital city of the province Asia, at the instigation of the bloodthirsty people. His martyrical acta, preserved in a letter, presents an exceptional historical interest because it is the first act of martyrdom that has been preserved in Greek, in its original form, after which it has been created the genre of the christian martyrical acts.
His life until the martyrdom
Until the moment of his martyrdom, there are some metions about his life as Christian in Smyrna. The Synaxarion of Ohrid indicates that Polycarp was born and lived in Smyrna, in the first christan century. As an orphan, he was raised by a faithful widow, called Calista. She named him after his father Pankratios, but God revealed her in a prayer to call him Polycarp, because he will help the people by filling back the emptied barns and he will do charity to the poor. When the saint reached the age of 20 years, he heard the Apostle John preaching the Gospel and followed him. When St. John was banished to Patmos island, he ordained St. Bucolus as bishop of Smyrna, and Polycarp helped him. Later, after the death of St. Bucolus, Polycarp was elected in his place, about in 106, as shown in the Epistle to Ephesians of St. Ignatius of Antioch (XXI, 1), ho was in his way to Rome, where he suffered martyrdom in 107. St. Ignatius even wrote a pastoral letter to Polycarp, in which he says: "These times require you to find God, as the pilots need wind and the sailors are looking for a port in the storm."
St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (202), born in Smyrna at 115, knew Polycarp from his childhood. In his Letter to Florinus (186), he mentions that St. Polycarp knew Saint John the Evangelist and other persons who had seen Christ: “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. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures…” (St Irenaeus, Letter to Florinus, kept in the Hist. Ecclesiastica of Eusebius, V, 20).
Irenaeus mentions Polycarp also in his Adversus Haereses III.3.4: „But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.”
In 154, or 155, St. Polycarp visited Rome and met Pope Anicetus (154-166) in order to fiind a sollution about the celebration date of the Easter. The christians in Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Cilicia and Asia Minor, and Polycarp himself, followed the tradition of John the Evangelist, celebrating "The Easter of the Cross" - "Pascha staurosimon" on 14 Nisan (April), with the Jews, for which they were appointed as "quartodecimans". The christians in Rome, Alexandria and western provinces of the Roman Empire celebrated the Easter according to the current calculations, calling it "The Easter of the Resurrection" - "Pascha anastasimon". That makes us to understand that there were theological differences regarding the meaning of the holidays.The understanding could not be achieved, but the two leaders of the Church parted in peace, as Eusebius of Caesarea in his Hist. Ecclesiastica 23,24,4-6 has shown.
Jerome provides in his De viris illustribus 17 an extra information about his trip to Rome: „He, on account of certain questions concerning the day of the Passover, went to Rome in the time of the emperor Antoninus Pins while Anicetus ruled the church in that city. There he led back to the faith many of the believers who had been deceived through the persuasion of Marcion and Valentinus, and when Marcion met him by chance and said "Do you know us" he replied, "I know the firstborn of the devil." Afterwards during the reign of Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus in the fourth persecution after Nero, in the presence of the proconsul holding court at Smyrna and all the people crying out against him in the Amphitheater, he was burned. He wrote a very valuable Epistle to the Philippians which is read to the present day in the meetings in Asia”.
The mention of Jerome attests three more things, important to know: first, Polycarp met in Rome some important leaders of the gnostic groups, second, he wrote an epistle to the Philippians, which was red in the Church probably in the same manner as the Apostles Epistles today. This means that the biblical canon was larger than today, including the epistles of the Apostolic Fathers. Third, Polycarp may have not died as traditionally said, in 155, but later, during the reign of Macus Antonius (161-180) and Commodus (180-192). There is known that these two rulers were co-emperors between 177 and 180, so that St. Polycarp might have died in this period.
The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp
Shortly after his arrival in Rome, St. Polycarp suffered the martyrdom, being burned onthe stake in the circus in Smyrna, on the big Saturday (this name is unclear in its meaning) on 23 February, traditionally in 155, but maybe later, when the asiarch Philipus (governor of Asia) organized some celebrations. The martyrdom of St. Polycarp is described into a letter sent by the Church of Smyrna to the community of Philomaelium, a city of Phrygia, and to other communities of the "Universal Church", and it was written by Irenaeus (maybe Irenaeus of Lyons), a disciple of the saint, being after copied more several times.
The letter describes in its 3rd chapter, that the sentenced to death were eleven Philadelphians, among which are mentioned as examples Germanicus, who was killed by an animal in the arena, and the Phrygian Quintus, who abjured the faith before the proconsul. The death of Germanicus stormed those present in the arena, who cried: „the wicked should perish: let Polycarp be sought!” The saint was at that time the city and did not want to hide, but eventually was persuaded to refuge in a cottage not far away from the city. Here he had a vision, three days before the martyrdom, knowing that he was supposed to die burnt alive (chapter V).
Being discovered, he was taken by the head of police, named Herod, and brought to the stadium, where he was tempted to deny Christ. On the road, an unseen voice from heaven, reassured him, saying „Be strong and of dare, Polycarp”. The crowd in the stadium asked him to curse Christ, but the saint answered: „eighty-six years I served Him and he didn’t harmed me. How can I curse my King Who saved me?” (chapter IX, 3). After a discussion with the proconsul, he was finally condemned to be burned alive, because the games with the beasts were over (chapter XII). In the preparation of the execution, the soldiers wanted to beat him in nails, but he required to be only bound.
Before being burned, the Saint made a prayer, which is one of the first prayers of the Church: „O Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received our knowledge concerning thee, the God of angels and powers, and of the whole creation, and of all the race of the just who lived before thee, I thank thee that thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, that I should have my portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, unto the resurrection of eternal life, both of the soul and body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among these may I be received before thee this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, even as thou hast prepared and made manifest beforehand, and hast fulfilled, thou who art the unerring and true God. On this account, and concerning all things, I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, together with the eternal and heavenly Jesus Christ thy beloved Son, with whom to thee and the Holy Spirit be glory both now and for ever. Amen.” (XIV).
After the prayer, he was surrounded by fires, but he didn’t burned. For this, a lancer he stuck him with a dagger in the chest and the blood stopped the fire. Some pagans asked not to give the body of Polycarp to the Christians, because they „will abandon the crucified and begin to worship this man” (XVII, 2). The authors of the epistle emphasize the difference in meaning between the worship of Christ and the veneration of saints, saying, „not knowing that we shall never be able to abandon Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the blameless on behalf of sinners, nor to worship any one else. Him we adore as the Son of God; but the martyrs, as the disciples and imitators of the Lord, we love according to their deserts, on account of their incomparable love for their King and Teacher, with whom may it be our lot to be partners and fellow-disciples” (XVII,2).
Finally, the saint's body was cremated, and the Christians have gathered the remains of bones: „having afterwards taken up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, laid them where it was suitable. There, so far as is allowed us, when we are gathered together in exultation and joy, the Lord will enable us to celebrate the birthday of the martyrs, both for the memory of those who have contended, and for the exercise and preparation of those to come”(XVIII, 1-2).
In the epilogue of the epistle, there is mentioned that „the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the month Xanthicus, seven days before the calendae of March, on the great Sabbath, at the eighth hour”.
The Legenda Aurea mentions that the Martyrdom was in 162. The date of February 23, 155 is mentioned in Synaxarium Ecclesiae Constantinopolitaniae, Martyrologium Hieronymianum, Bibliotheca hagiographica Graeca şi Latina, which contradicts the mentions of Jerome in his De viris illustribus, already mentioned.
The martyrdom of Polycarp is very important for the actual apologetics, stating the difference between the adoration of Christ and the veneration of the saints, thing that was strongly attacked by the protestant groups in the modern times. Also the Catholic and Orthodox teaching about the veneration of the holy relics finds its support here.
The Feast Day of Saint Polycarp is in the West on January 26, and in the East is on February 23.
The Relics of the Saint
The wonderworking relic of the saint was brought from Smyrna a few decades after the Fall of Constantinople in 1479 by the monks Arsenios and Samuel, being kept until today in the monastery of Panagia Ambelakiotissa, in Nafpaktos, now in Geece. The relic before that time had been in the possession of a certain widow as part of her inheritance. It was only after much labor and expense that the monks were able to acquire this valuable relic, consisting in the elbow down to the fingers, with the hand in a position of blessing.
There are also some legends about the fact that the Templars posessed the Relic of the Head of the saint, which was taken by them in France, when they left Jerusalem. This mention is made in their trial, made in 1560.
Some small relics are to be fiind in different churches in the whole world, such in the church of Radu Voda monastery from Bucharest, in the church of the Zografou monastery at the Mount Athos, but also in the in the St. Anthony Chapel from Pittsburgh, USA.
The Hermeneia of the byzantine painting, written by Dionisius of Furna (15th century) states that St. Polycarp should be represented in the icons as an old bishop, with a rond beard, split in two parts.
The Hymn (Troparion) of the Saint:
„By sharing in the ways of the Apostles, you became a successor to their throne. Through the practice of virtue, you found the way to divine contemplation, O inspired one of God; by teaching the word of truth without error, you defended the Faith, even to the shedding of your blood. Hieromartyr Polycarp, entreat Christ God to save our souls!”