Just after we celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, we celebrate one of the Apostolic Fathers of the faith St. Polycarp of Smyrna. St. Polycarp was converted to the faith by St.. John the Evangelist about 80 A.D. and became bishop of Smyrna around 96 A.D.
From the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we learn that Polycarp was a defender of orthodoxy. Polycarp opposed such heretical groups as the Marcionites and Valentinians. Marcionites and Valentinians rejected the writings of the Old Testament and taught that Christ is the Son of God who is different from the God of the Old Testament. As Catholics, we believe that Jesus is the son of God who is the same God in the Old Testament. The Marcionites and Valentinians made up many Christians at the time. They had strength in numbers. As Christians, we are called to defend our faith in Jesus to those around us. Polycarp is a great example of knowing his faith well enough to respond the vast number of people around him who understood the faith incompletely.
St. Polycarp wrote an epistle to the Philippians, exhorting them to remain strong in the faith. For those of you who are history buffs, this letter is of great interest because it demonstrates the existence of New Testament texts: with quotes from Matthew and Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and the first letters of Peter and John.
St. Polycarp died a martyr’s death at the hand of the Romans around 155 A.D. Christians did not burn incense at altars because this was considered a form of idolatry. Romans believed that burning incense to the pagan gods was a way of showing allegiance to the empire. After being captured by the Romans, Polycarp refused to renounce the faith, telling the Roman captain that he had served Christ for eighty-six years. The Romans burned him alive with twelve companions. We may not be called to this red martyrdom in our lives. During this liturgical season of Lent, we are called to die to ourselves so that we can draw closer to Christ. The martyrs are great witnesses of Christ and I hope the example of St.. Polycarp helps you draw closer to Christ.
St. Polycarp, pray for us!