On the calendar of the Novus Ordo and in the Byzantine Rite, today is the feast of St Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, who was martyred on this day in the year 155 AD. Among the very early Christian writers known as the Apostolic Fathers, those who lived closest to the time of the Lord and Apostles, and knew them personally, Polycarp is the one of whom we know the most. He was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, who personally made him the bishop of that city. Various stories about him are preserved in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea (4, 14; 5, 20 & 24); there also exist a letter written to him by St Ignatius of Antioch, who mentions him in two of his other letters, and Polycarp’s own letter to the church of Philippi, which St Jerome records was still read during the liturgy in the churches of Asia in his own time.
It is also recorded that Polycarp met Ignatius as the latter passed though Smyrna on his way to martyrdom in Rome (ca. 107 AD), and kissed his chains. Forty years later, he himself was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death as an “atheist”, as the Romans often called the Christians for rejecting the worship of their gods. The events of his martyrdom are recorded in a letter sent by the church of Smyrna to that of Philomelium, about 230 miles to the east, and “to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place.” This letter is the first authentic account of an early Christian martyrdom after that of St Stephen’s in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Saint was very elderly at the time of his arrest and condemnation, for he himself says when ordered to reproach Christ, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When he was sentenced to be burned alive, the soldiers were going to nail him to the pyre, at which he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.” He was therefore only bound with ropes, “like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God.”
However, once the fire was set, it billowed out around Polycarp “in the form of a sail” and although he seemed “like gold or silver glowing in a furnace,” would not consume him. This is one of many famous examples of the refusal by Nature itself to cooperate with the persecutors of God’s Saints, forcing them to take the matter into their own hands, and accept responsibility for the evil which they do. At this, his side was pierced with a dagger, and the flow of blood that came forth was so great that the flames were extinguished.
The official in charge refused to allow the Christians to take the body for burial, but rather had it cremated, the standard pagan practice; this was certainly done in despite of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Nevertheless, the Christians of Smyrna “took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”
Eusebius also records these words of one of Polycarp’s disciples, named Irenaeus. “I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which happened recently, for what we learn as children grows up with the soul and is united to it, so that I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourses which he made to people, how he reported his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, and about their miracles, and about their teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures.”
Greeks had settled in southern Gaul centuries before it was conquered by Rome, and there were a great many cultural ties and exchanges particularly between that area and Asia Minor. Irenaeus himself migrated there at some point in the mid-2nd century, and became bishop of Lyon after a rather spectacular martyrdom which took place there in 177, in which the previous bishop. St Pothinus, was killed along with about 40 other people. This is recorded in a letter which the clergy of Lyon sent to the churches of Asia Minor, also preserved by Eusebius.
In his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, Pope St John XXIII cites a famous passage from St Irenaeus, which says that “every church” must keep itself “in concord” with the Roman Church, and notes that the common use of Latin is one of the instruments which facilitates that. The work of Irenaeus from which this quote is taken, the treatise Against the Heresies (i.e. the Gnostic heresies), is itself an interesting example of the role which Latin has played in preserving the “wisdom of the ancient”; only fragments of the Greek original survive, but there are many complete copies of an early Latin translation of it.