Acta Sanctorum: St. Polycarp (Feb 23)
February 23, 2023
Fr. John Colacino C.PP.S.

Life (Died c. 155)

Contemporary Christians spoke with reverence of St. Polycarp not only because of his own venerability, but because he had been a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Indeed, some have said that he was named bishop of Smyrna by the beloved disciple.

As bishop, Polycarp is known for two things in particular. First, he wrote an epistle to the Christians of Philippi around 110 to accompany copies of the letters that St. Ignatius of Antioch had written to several dioceses when en route to martyrdom in Rome. In this covering letter, Polycarp defended to the Philippians the truth of the Incarnation; he drew a picture of the ideal priest, he urged almsgiving, and he commended to their prayers the heads of nations.

Secondly, Polycarp himself journeyed to Rome in 155 to discuss with Pope Anicetus certain ecclesiastical matters, especially the manner of figuring the date of Easter. The East and Rome had different ways of determining it. The bishop of Smyrna was not persuaded to abandon the Eastern calendar, which he had from St. John. Nevertheless, the bishops of Rome and Smyrna parted on good terms.

Only shortly after his return from Rome, Polycarp was called on to shed his blood for the faith. We possess a letter written as early as 156 by a Smyrnean Christian who had been witness to his trial and death. It is the first extant account we have of the death of an individual Christian martyr.

Eleven Christians had already been executed at Smyrna when the bloodthirsty mob in the stadium shouted, “Go and get Polycarp!” Forewarned, the bishop went into hiding, since Christ had said that we must not court a martyr’s crown. But eventually the posse learned of his whereabouts and closed in on him.

Polycarp greeted them cordially. Indeed, he invited them to dinner, asking only that he be given an hour alone to pray. He prayed for two hours with great devotion, and many of his captors were sorry to have to arrest such a holy old man. They took him off to the stadium, nonetheless, where the mob of pagans was drooling for another spectacular execution. The governor first examined him, threatening him with being thrown to the beasts or burnt to death if he did not first swear “by the Genius of the emperor,” and then curse Christ.

With joyful courage, Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have been His servant and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme against my King and Savior?”

The governor therefore ordered that the bishop be burnt to death. The sneering mob shouted, “Here is the schoolmaster of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods.” They hastened to gather wood for the fire. Polycarp was led to the pyre and the executioners started to nail his feet to one of the timbers. “Leave me thus”, said the bishop. God, he said, would give him strength to stand fast. Then he uttered a long and beautiful prayer, praising the Father, through the Son and with the Holy Spirit, for the privilege of drinking of Jesus’ chalice of suffering.

When the fire was set, marvelous to say, the flames rose and surrounded the martyr’s body like a vault. His flesh was not consumed, but browned, and gave off the sweet odor of incense. At length the governor ordered that he be stabbed to death.

The Christians of Smyna afterwards gathered up their bishop’s remains and buried them in a select spot. They resolved to celebrate Mass there on that day every year thereafter. (This is the earliest evidence on record of honoring saints on their feast days, not as God is worshipped, of course, but as the disciples and imitators of the Lord are venerated.)

The writer of this account says that after his death even the pagans of Smyrna spoke well of St. Polycarp. He was indeed, says the narrator, “Not only a great teacher but also a conspicuous martyr, whose testimony, following the Gospel of Christ, everyone desires to imitate.”

Everyone, that is, even ourselves, should it be God’s will for us. Everyone.

--Father Robert F. McNamara

Scripture: Revelation 2:8-11
I, John, heard the Lord say to me: ‘Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna and say, “Here is the message of the First and the Last, who was dead and has come to life again: I know the trials you have had, and how poor you are – though you are rich – and the slanderous accusations that have been made by the people who profess to be Jews but are really members of the synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of the sufferings that are coming to you: I tell you, the devil is going to send some of you to prison to test you, and you must face an ordeal for ten days. Even if you have to die, keep faithful, and I will give you the crown of life for your prize. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: for those who prove victorious there is nothing to be afraid of in the second death.”’


(Year A) Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi: Mercy to you, and peace from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, be multiplied. 

I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because ye have followed the example of true love [as displayed by God], and have accompanied, as became you, those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God and our Lord; and because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by, endureth even until now, and bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] "whom God raised froth the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave." "In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; " into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that "by grace ye are saved, not of works," but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. 

"Wherefore, girding up your loins," "serve the Lord in fear" and truth, as those who have forsaken the vain, empty talk and error of the multitude, and "believed in Him who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory," and a throne at His right hand. To Him all things" in heaven and on earth are subject. Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead. His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him. But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, falsewitness; "not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing," or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: "Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again; and once more, "Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God." 

These things, brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because ye have invited me to do so. For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom" of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and stedfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, "is the mother of us all." For if any one be inwardly possessed of these graces, he hath fulfilled the command of righteousness, since he that hath love is far from all sin. 

"But the love of money is the root of all evils." Knowing, therefore, that "as we brought nothing into the world, so we can carry nothing out," let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness; and let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord. Next, [teach] your wives [to walk] in the faith given to them, and in love and purity tenderly loving their own husbands in all truth, and loving all [others] equally in all chastity; and to train up their children in the knowledge and fear of God. Teach the widows to be discreet as respects the faith of the Lord, praying continually for all, being far from all slandering, evil-speaking, false-witnessing, love of money, and every kind of evil; knowing that they are the altar s of God, that He clearly perceives all things, and that nothing is hid from Him, neither reasonings, nor reflections, nor any one of the secret things of the heart. (Letter to the Philippians I-IV)

Musical Selection (Translation in Video)

God of all creation,
it was your gracious will
that the holy bishop Polycarp be numbered
among the company of the martyrs;
grant through his intercession
that we may share with him the cup of Christ’s sufferings,
and so rise again to everlasting life.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen. (ICEL; 1998)