For All The Saints: Polycarp of Smyrna

On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Polycarp, an Apostolic Father of the Church. He was eighty-six years old when he was captured, arrested, and publicly executed by the Roman authorities on this day in AD 156. He was the Bishop of Smyrna and had been a disciple of St. John, the Apostle.

He died a martyr when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed. This is true Christian martyrdom in the example of  Our Lord, St. Stephen, and all the Apostles (except St. John)—death freely accepted rather than deny the Faith. Not martyrdom by way of killing a bunch of innocent bystanders with a suicide bomb wrapped around your waist. Not lashing out with a sword to see how many of the enemy you can take with you to the grave. Instead, a simple refusal to deny Our Lord when tempted to do so and an acceptance of the sentence as meted out by the authorities.

What follows is Polycarp’s famous refusal to revile Our Lord and the account of the prayer he prayed when the authorities attempted to burn him at the stake.

But when the magistrate pressed him hard and said, “Swear the oath, and I will release thee; revile the Christ,” Polycarp said, “Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals, a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good. Immediately then they surrounded him with those substances which had been prepared for the funeral pile. But when they were about also to fix him with nails, he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”

They did not nail him then, but simply bound him. And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram taken out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption imparted by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before Thee as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, hast foreordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”

“Martyrdom of Polycarp” from Ceiling of the Church of St. Polycarp, Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey)

Take a look at the video by Drive Thru History:

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10 Responses to For All The Saints: Polycarp of Smyrna

  1. Webster Bull says:

    There is a beautiful image about the martyrdom of Polycarp in today's Office of Readings:“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 is 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."


  2. Allison Salerno says:

    A young family friend, J., chose Polycarp as his confirmation name. J. told me that Polycarp was well known because as he was traveling to Rome to be killed, he wrote letter after letter about Christianity. (From wikipedia) This is one quote from the epistle: "Stand fast, therefore, in this conduct and follow the example of the Lord, 'firm and unchangeable in faith, lovers of the brotherhood, loving each other, united in truth,' helping each other with the mildness of the Lord, despising no man."Alas, Polycarp is not well known as he should be. J and his mother said that when J. stated his Confirmation name to the Bishop during his Confirmation name, the Bishop's response was "Who?"


  3. Frank says:

    The Martydom of Polycarp in its entirety can be read at the link below:Martyrdom of Polycarp


  4. Anonymous says:

    @Allison,Thanks for sharing the story of the young family friend who chose Polycarp for his Confirmation name which resulted in the Bishop asking questions. Wonderful!!! Isn't this a statement of the beauty of Catholicism and the infinite well of knowledge surrounding the Communion of The Mystical Body of Christ. No matter what we know or how well we express ourselves, we never quite get there but we're always desiring more. Lastly, this blog is so wonderful as it demonstrates that there are so many different angles to choose from in order to practice and appreciate the Gift given to us.


  5. Frank says:

    @Allison: that Polycarp was well known because as he was traveling to Rome to be killed, he wrote letter after letter about Christianity.Actually, that sounds like the story of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Another inspiring story there! St. Polycarp collected the letters of Ignatius before his own death.The letters of Ignatius were first collected by Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who sent copies of them to the church at Philippi not long after Ignatius had left that city on his way across Macedonia (Phil., ch. 13). Whether this collection contained all seven letters is not clear. Possibly Polycarp did not have access to the one to the Romans, though this was early in circulation, being quoted by Irenaeus (Adv. haer. V. 28:4), and known, of course, to Eusebius. It is likely that copies of all the letters were kept by Ignatius’ amanuensis, the Ephesian Burrhus (see Philad. 11:2), and that Polycarp obtained them from him.


  6. Frank says:

    @Anon 10:25, Thanks for the kind words!And here from the YIM Catholic Archives (sheesh!), Ignatius of Antioch


  7. Polycarp is one of my favorite Church fathers. I always joked that I wanted to name a kid Polycarp. My wife would not allow such a cruelty to a child. 😉 So I named a house Polycarp instead.


  8. Frank says:

    @WW, Yes, I can "hear" her point LOL. Popoe Benedict XVI said this of St. Polycarp:St. Polycarp of Smyrna(69–155; February 23)Eucharist and witnessI would like to reflect on a notion dear to the early Christians, which also speakseloquently to us today: namely, witness even to the offering of one’s own life, to thepoint of martyrdom. Throughout the history of the Church, this has always been seen asthe culmination of the new spiritual worship: “Offer your bodies” (Rom 12:1). Onethinks, for example, of the account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, adisciple of St. John: the entire drama is described as a liturgy, with the martyr himselfbecoming Eucharist.-Apostolic Exhortation The Sacrament of Charity (Sacramentum Caritatis), no. 85February 22, 2007


  9. Michelle says:

    I certainly have Ploycarp to thank for my belief in the Catholic faith. Especially thanks to Polycarp and Ignatius. I think I've already said this before, but when I was first challenged to study the Catholic faith a convert-friend suggested I do this Lenten reading of the early church fathers. It takes the reader through about 10 early fathers. It was Ignatius and Polycarp that convinced me of the Eucharist and adherence to the Bishop. 🙂


  10. Frank says:

    Michelle: I agree. Not knowing the history of Christianity, I had no idea about the early teachings and the early Christian churches. But eventually, I had to know. Thankfully the resources are available. Like here: The Apostolic Fathers.An understanding of history has been such a help to me in the past, why ignore it now?


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