The Church has had martyrs since her earliest days, and will have them unto the end of time. One of the first in the post-apostolic era was Saint Polycarp (+155 A.D.), whom we commemorate on this February 23rd. He was bishop of Smyrna, in Greece, a disciple of Saint John the Beloved, and the Apostle himself who may well have ordained our saint. Polycarp was also a correspondent with Saint Ignatius of Antioch (+110), who mentions him in two of his letters written on the way to his own martyrdom in the Coliseum at Rome.
The contemporary and eyewitness, as well as vivid and endearing, account of his martyrdom – a few decades after the death of Saint John – provides a window into the early Church, and the persecution of Christians at the very dawn of Christianity.
When faced with the choice of apostasy or death, Polycarp, then an octogenarian, boldly and unhesitatingly replied:
Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong…how then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked
Bishops sure knew how to call a duck a duck in those early days. Pray that they may receive an ounce or two of Polycarp’s parrhesia!
As was the custom, they – the ones preparing their own punishment unless they repented – were going to nail Polycarp to the pyre, for almost everyone will struggle and try to flee when the flames begin to burn their flesh, but, again, the good bishop replied:
Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails
And so it was. The saint remained still, as he prayed:
Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise.
The bystanders claimed that there was no smell of burning as Polycarp offered his soul, but rather his body seemed to them like baked bread, giving off the scent of costly incense. With his last breath, he declared:
I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ
So may we say when God so calls us, and, with the martyred bishop of Smyrna, may our lives be an offering to God, whatever way He may ask this of us.
Saint Polycarp, ora pro nobis…