Tradition holds that St. Polycarp, born in Smyrna in the year 69, was baptized by St. John, the beloved disciple. Smyrna was an important Mediterranean seaport, and many Christians fled to it and other area cities after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. St. John, living in Ephesus, at first served as the bishop for the entire area, so the teaching received by those of Polycarp’s time was truly “apostolic”, linked directly to the teachings of our Lord.
Bucolis was eventually consecrated as bishop for the city of Smyrna and young Polycarp tried to emulate his holiness of life. St. Bucolis ordained Polycarp to the priesthood and designated him to be his successor at his death.
St. Polycarp’s long service to the church came at a crucial time in its early history, and the part he played was an influential one. It was during this time that the Roman officials began to persecute and execute Christians for their religious beliefs and it was also during this time that Orthodox Christianity began to be challenged from within by heretical doctrines. By his staunch defense against the heresy of Gnosticism and by his martyrdom in the public arena, St. Polycarp stands as a shining example to us in our present time of increased heresy and subtle persecution.
St. Polycarp speaks to us through several documents which have survived from his time as a historical record of his life. One is a letter from St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, written to the younger bishop Polycarp as that aged father was on his way to martyrdom. St. Ignatius warned Polycarp of the dangers of heresy and commended the Christians of Antioch to his care.
A letter from Bishop Polycarp to the church in Philippi has survived. This letter shows Polycarp’s knowledge of the Christian writings of the day – the nucleus of the New Testament (the Synoptic Gospels, St. Paul’s epistles, some of the pastoral epistles) – and shows the importance placed on these writings by the leaders of the church. The letter also shows the saint’s concern for mercy in judgements against Christians who have gone astray (in this case a priest and his wife who had embezzled church funds!)
St. Irenaeus, who as a young boy had been taught by Polycarp, wrote of his mentor, telling us of his relationship with St. John the Evangelist and of his reaction to meeting the Gnostic heretic Marcion in Rome. He relates that Polycarp called the man “the first-born of Satan”, a reminder to us that heretical ideas cannot be glossed over in the name of “inclusivity” or “tolerance for diversity”.
Another important document about Polycarp is the account his flock wrote of the martyrdom of their beloved shepherd. This is the earliest example of such an account and it gives us a vivid picture of the danger faced by Christians at that time: a crowd of spectators at the games provided by the Roman government for the entertainment of the people was stirred up to call for the blood of Polycarp as the leader of the Christian “atheists” (those who did not show worship of the emperor). Soldiers searched and found the bishop at a farm, where he offered them hospitality and asked for a few hours to pray before being taken by them to trial. Officials tried to persuade the bishop to blaspheme Christ and give obeisance to the Emperor. But Polycarp refused, saying simply that he had served Christ for 86 years and would not turn away from his true King now. The aged bishop was sentenced to death, and seeing that he showed no fear at the thought of being thrown to the lions, the governor ordered him to be burned alive. A miracle prevented this method from being successful, so St. Polycarp was killed by the sword and his body was then burned. His followers gathered up his bones and then wrote the full account of his trial and death.
Like his predecessor to martyrdom, St. Ignatius, who called himself the “wheat of Christ’ as he was being fed to the lions, St. Polycarp’s death provided spiritual nourishment and encouragement to others faced with persecution and the temptation to falter from Orthodox Truth. May we look to him for the same nourishment and encouragement today. Holy Polycarp, pray for us.
Sources: Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson; Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril Richardson; Lives of the Saints by Fr. Alban Butler; Lives of Saints for Young People, Vol. 7 by Bishop Lazar Puhalo; Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer; Prologue from Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic.