Polycarp was one of the leaders of the Church who carried on the tradition of the apostles through the troubled period of Gnostic heresies in the second century. According to Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who had known him in his early youth, Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle, and had been appointed a bishop by “apostles in Asia”. Polycarp is traditionally believed to be the “angel of the church in Smyrna” addressed in Revelation 2:8-11.
We possess a letter from Polycarp to the Church in Philippi, whose text reveals his firm adherence to the faith and his pastoral concern for fellow Christians in trouble.
The epistle concludes:
May God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal High Priest himself, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, further your growth in faith and truth and in meekness that is perfect and without a vestige of resentment, as well as in patient endurance and long-suffering and perseverance and purity. May he also grant perfect fellowship with his saints to you, and along with you, to us, and indeed to all who are under heaven and destined to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and his Father, who has raised him from the dead. Pray for all the saints. Pray also for kings and magistrates and rulers, and for such as persecute and hate you, as well as for the enemies of the Cross. Thus all will come to see how well you are doing, and you will be perfect in him.
Polycarp traveled to Rome around the year 155, shortly after Anicetus became bishop of Rome, to discuss questions regarding the time for observing the Pasch (Easter). Polycarp, with many Christians in Asia, observed the Pasch according to the Quartodeciman reckoning; i.e.,on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan (whether that fell on a Sunday or not), while Anicetus, in common with most Christians in the West, observed the Pasch on the Sunday following the fourteenth day of Nisan. According to Irenaeus,
Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp to forgo the [Quartodeciman] observance inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of the Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor did Polycarp persuade Anicetus to keep it: Anicetus said that he must hold to the way of the elders before him.
Neither Polycarp nor Anicetus could persuade the other of the correctness of his reckoning, but they did not consider it sufficient cause to justify a schism. Indeed, Irenaeus tells us that Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect, and the two parted in peace with the matter unsettled.
In his Book on Ecclesiastical Writers, Jerome writes that while in Rome, Polycarp found heretics there who had been led astray by the doctrines of Marcion and the gnostic Valentinus, and that he brought many of them back to the faith. Marcion met Polycarp one day by accident, and asked him, “Do you recognize me?” to which Polycarp replied, “I recognize the devil’s eldest son!”
An authentic account of the martyrdom of Polycarp on February 23 is also preserved, written from the account of an eyewitness named Marcion (not to be confused with the second-century heretic of the same name). The martyrdom probably occurred in the year 156. The account tells of Polycarp’s courageous witness in the amphitheater at Smyrna. When the proconsul asked him to curse Christ, Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The account reports that the magistrate was reluctant to kill the gentle old man, but his hand was forced by the mob, who clamored that he be thrown to wild beasts, as was the fate of other Christians on that dreadful day.
The magistrate refused to throw Polycarp to the wild beasts, claiming he had no authority to do so, but he had Polycarp burned at the stake. Before his ordeal, the saintly bishop looked up to heaven, and prayed:
Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed child Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and hosts and all creation, and of the whole race of the upright who live in your presence, I bless you that you have thought me worthy of this day and hour, to be numbered among the martyrs and share in the cup of Christ, for resurrection to eternal life, for soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among them may I be accepted before you today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as you, the faithful and true God, have prepared and foreshown and brought about. For this reason and for all things I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved child, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for the ages to come. Amen.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts with additions,
and with texts from Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, no. 6
O God, the maker of heaven and earth, you gave your venerable servant, the holy and gentle Polycarp, boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior, and steadfastness to die for his faith: Give us grace, following his example, to share the cup of Christ and rise to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.