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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

January 26

St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, Martyr

        From his acts, written by the church of Smyrna in an excellent circular letter to the churches of Pontus, immediately after his martyrdom: a piece abridged by Eusebius, b. 4. c. 14. highly esteemed by the ancients. Joseph Scaliger, a supercilious critic, says that nothing in the whole course of church history so strongly affected him as the perusal of these acts, and those relating to the martyrs of Lyons: that he never read them but they gave him extraordinary emotions. Animad. in Chron. Eusebii. n. 2183, &c. They are certainly most valuable pieces of Christian antiquity. See Eusebius, St. Jerom, and St. Irenæus. Also Tillemont, T. 2. p. 327. Dom Ceillier, T. 1. Dom Marechal, Concordance des Pères Grecs et Latins, T. 1.

A.D. 166.

ST. POLYCARP was one of the most illustrious of the apostolic fathers, who, being the immediate disciples of the apostles, received instructions from their mouths, and inherited of them the spirit of Christ, in a degree so much the more eminent, as they lived nearer the fountain head. He embraced Christianity very young, about the year 80; was a disciple of the apostles, in particular of St. John the Evangelist, and was constituted by him bishop of Smyrna, probably before his banishment to Patmos, in 96: so that he governed that important see seventy years. He seems to have been the angel or bishop of Smyrna, who was commended above all the bishops of Asia by Christ himself in the Apocalypse, 1 and the only one without a reproach. Our Saviour encouraged him under his poverty, tribulation, and persecutions, especially the calumnies of the Jews, called him rich in grace, and promised him the crown of life by martyrdom. This saint was respected by the faithful to a degree of veneration. He formed many holy disciples, among whom were St. Irenæus and Papias. When Florinus, who had often visited St. Polycarp, had broached certain heresies, St. Irenæus wrote to him as follows: 2 “These things were not taught you by the bishops who preceded us. I could tell you the place where the blessed Polycarp sat to preach the word of God. It is yet present to my mind with what gravity he every where came in and went out: what was the sanctity of his deportment, the majesty of his countenance and of his whole exterior, and what were his holy exhortations to the people. I seem to hear him now relate how he conversed with John and many others, who had seen Jesus Christ; the words he had heard from their mouths. I can protest before God, that if this holy bishop had heard of any error like yours, he would have immediately stopped his ears, and cried out, according to his custom: Good God! that I should be reserved to these times to hear such things! That very instant he would have fled out of the place in which he had heard such doctrine.” Saint Jerom 3 mentions, that St. Polycarp met at Rome the heretic Marcion in the streets, who resenting that the holy bishop did not take that notice of him which he expected, said to him: “Do not you know me, Polycarp?” “Yes,” answered the saint, “I know you to be the first-born of Satan.” He had learned this abhorrence of the authors of heresy, who knowingly and willingly adulterate the divine truths, from his master St. John, who fled out of the bath in which he saw Cerinthus. 4 St. Polycarp kissed with respect the chains of St. Ignatius, who passed by Smyrna on the road to his martyrdom, and who recommended to our saint the care and comfort of his distant church of Antioch; which he repeated to him in a letter from Troas, desiring him to write in his name to those churches of Asia to which he had not leisure to write himself. 5 St. Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippians shortly after, which is highly commended by Saint Irenæus, St. Jerom, Eusebius, Photius and others, and is still extant. It is justly admired both for the excellent instructions it contains, and for the simplicity and perspicuity of the style; and was publicly read in the church in Asia, in Saint Jerom’s time. In it he calls a heretic, as above, the eldest son of Satan. About the year 158, he undertook a journey of charity to Rome, to confer with Pope Anicetus about certain points of discipline, especially about the time of keeping Easter; for the Asiatic churches kept it on the fourteenth day of the vernal equinoctial moon, as the Jews did, on whatever day of the week it fell; whereas Rome, Egypt, and all the West observed it on the Sunday following. It was agreed that both might follow their custom without breaking the bands of charity. St. Anicetus, to testify his respect, yielded to him the honour of celebrating the Eucharist in his own church. 6 We find no further particulars concerning our saint recorded before the acts of his martyrdom.
  In the sixth year of Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus, Statius Quadratus being proconsul of Asia, a violent persecution broke out in that country, in which the faithful gave heroic proofs of their courage and love of God, to the astonishment of the infidels. When they were torn to pieces with scourges till their very bowels were laid bare, amidst the moans and tears of the spectators, who were moved with pity at the sight of their torments, not one of them gave so much as a single groan: so little regard had they for their own flesh in the cause of God. No kinds of torture, no inventions of cruelty were forborne to force them to a conformity to the pagan worship of the times. Germanicus, who had been brought to Smyrna with eleven or twelve other Christians, signalized himself above the rest, and animated the most timorous to suffer. The proconsul in the amphitheatre called upon him with tenderness, entreating him to have some regard for his youth, and to value at least his life: but he, with a holy impatience, provoked the beasts to devour him, to leave this wicked world. One Quintus, a Phrygian, who had presented himself to the judge, yielded at the sight of the beasts let out upon him, and sacrificed. The authors of these acts justly condemn the presumption of those who offered themselves to suffer, 7 and say that the martyrdom of St. Polycarp was conformable to the gospel, because he exposed not himself to the temptation, but waited till the persecutors laid hands on him, as Christ our Lord taught us by his own example. The same venerable authors observe, that the martyrs by their patience and constancy demonstrated to all men, that, whilst their bodies were tormented, they were in spirit estranged from the flesh, and already in heaven; or rather that our Lord was present with them and assisted them; for the fire of the barbarous executioners seemed as if it had been a cooling refreshment to them. 8 The spectators, seeing the courage of Germanicus and his companions, and being fond of their impious bloody diversions, cried out: “Away with the impious; let Polycarp be sought for.” The holy man, though fearless, had been prevailed upon by his friends to withdraw and conceal himself in a neighbouring village, during the storm, spending most of his time in prayer. Three days before his martyrdom, he in a vision saw his pillow on fire; from which he understood by revelation, and foretold his companions, that he should be burnt alive. When the persecutors were in quest of him he changed his retreat, but was betrayed by a boy, who was threated with the rack unless he discovered him. Herod, the Irenarch, or keeper of the peace, whose office it was to prevent misdemeanors and apprehend malefactors, sent horesemen by night to beset his lodgings. The saint was above stairs in bed, but refused to make his escape, saying: “God’s will be done.” He went down, met them at the door, ordered them a handsome supper, and desired only some time for prayer before he went with them. This granted, he began his prayer standing, which he continued in that posture for two hours, recommending to God his own flock and the whole church with so much earnestness and devotion, that several of those who were come to seize him, repented they had undertaken the commission. They set him on an ass, and were conducting him towards the city, when he was met on the road by Herod and his father Nicetes, who took him into their chariot, and endeavoured to persuade him to a little compliance, saying: “What harm is there in saying Lord Cæsar, or even in sacrificing, to escape death?” By the word Lord was meant nothing less than a kind of deity or god-head. The bishop at first was silent, in imitation of our Saviour: but being pressed, he gave them this resolute answer: “I shall never do what you desire of me.” At these words, taking off the mask of friendship and compassion, they treated him with scorn and reproaches, and thrust him out of the chariot with such violence, that his leg was bruised by the fall. The holy man went forward cheerfully to the place where the people were assembled. Upon his entering it, a voice from heaven was heard by many, saying: “Polycarp, be courageous, and act manfully.” 9 He was led directly to the tribunal of the proconsul, who exhorted him to respect his own age, to swear by the genius of Cæsar, and to say: “Take away the impious,” meaning the Christians. The saint, turning towards the people in the pit, said, with a stern countenance: “Exterminate the wicked,” meaning by this expression either a wish that they might cease to be wicked by their conversion to the faith of Christ: or this was a prediction of the calamity which befel their city in 177, when Smyrna was overturned by an earthquake, as we read in Dion 10 and Aristides. 11 The proconsul repeated: “Swear by the genius of Cæsar, and I discharge you; blaspheme Christ.” Polycarp replied: “I have served him these fourscore and six years, and he never did me any harm, but much good; and how can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour? If you require of me to swear by the genius of Cæsar, as you call it, hear my free confession: I am a Christian; but if you desire to learn the Christian religion, appoint a time, and hear me.” The proconsul said: “Persuade the people.” The martyr replied: “I address my discourse to you; for we are taught to give due honour to princes as far as is consistent with religion. But the populace is an incompetent judge to justify myself before.” Indeed rage rendered them incapable of hearing him.  2
  The proconsul then assuming a tone of severity, said: “I have wild beasts;” “Call for them,” replied the saint, “for we are unalterably resolved not to change from good to evil. It is only good to pass from evil to good.” The proconsul said: “If you contemn the beasts, I will cause you to be burnt to ashes.” Polycarp answered: “You threaten me with a fire which burns for a short time, and then goes out; but are yourself ignorant of the judgment to come, and of the fire of everlasting torments, which is prepared for the wicked. Why do you delay? Bring against me what you please.” Whilst he said this and many other things, he appeared in a transport of joy and confidence and his countenance shone with a certain heavenly grace, and pleasant cheerfulness, insomuch, that the proconsul himself was struck with admiration. However, he ordered a crier to make public proclamation three times in the middle of the Stadium (as was the Roman custom in capital cases): “Polycarp hath confessed himself a Christian.” 12 At this proclamation the whole multitude of Jews and Gentiles gave a great shout, the latter crying out: “This is the great teacher of Asia; the father of the Christians; the destroyer of our gods, who preaches to men not to sacrifice to or adore them.” They applied to Philip the Asiarch, 13 to let loose a lion upon Polycarp. He told them that it was not in his power, because those shows had been closed. Then they unanimously demanded, that he should be burnt alive. Their request was no sooner granted, but every one ran with all speed, to fetch wood from the baths and shops. The Jews were particularly active and busy on this occasion. The pile being prepared, Polycarp put off his garments, untied his girdle, and began to take off his shoes; an office he had not been accustomed to, the Christians having always striven who should do these things for him, regarding it as a happiness to be admitted to touch him. The wood and other combustibles were heaped all round him. The executioners would have nailed him to the stake; but he said to them: “Suffer me to be as I am. He who gives me grace to undergo this fire, will enable me to stand still without that precaution.” They therefore contented themselves with tying his hands behind his back, and in this posture looking up towards heaven, he prayed as follows: “O Almighty Lord God, Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of thee, God of angels, powers, and every creature, and of all the race of the just that live in thy presence! I bless thee for having been pleased in thy goodness to bring me to this hour, that I may receive my portion in the number of thy martyrs, and partake of the chalice of thy Christ, for the resurrection to eternal life, in the incorruptibleness of the Holy Spirit. Amongst whom grant me to be received this day as a pleasing sacrifice, such a one as thou thyself hast prepared, that so thou mayest accomplish what thou, O true and faithful God! hast foreshown. Wherefore, for all things I praise, bless, and glorify thee, through the eternal high priest Jesus Christ thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee and the Holy Ghost be glory now and for ever. Amen.” He had scarcely said Amen, when fire was set to the pile, which increased to a mighty flame. But behold a wonder, say the authors of these acts, seen by us reserved to attest it to others; the flames forming themselves into an arch, like the sails of a ship swelled with the wind, gently encircled the body of the martyr; which stood in the middle, resembling not roasted flesh, but purified gold or silver, appearing bright through the flames; and his body sending forth such a fragrancy, that we seemed to smell precious spices. The blind infidels were only exasperated to see that his body could not be consumed, and ordered a spearman to pierce him through, which he did, and such a quantity of blood issued out of his left side as to quench the fire. 14 The malice of the devil ended not here: he endeavoured to obstruct the relics of the martyr being carried off by the Christians; for many desired to do it, to show their respect to his body. Therefore, by the suggestion of Satan, Nicetes advised the proconsul not to bestow it on the Christians, lest, said he, abandoning the crucified man, they should adore Polycarp: the Jews suggested this, “Not knowing,” say the authors of the acts, “that we can never forsake Christ, nor adore any other, though we love the martyrs, as his disciples and imitators, for the great love they bore their king and master.” The centurion, seeing a contest raised by the Jews, placed the body in the middle, and burnt it to ashes. “We afterwards took up the bones,” say they, “more precious than the richest jewels or gold, and deposited them decently in a place at which may God grant us to assemble with joy, to celebrate the birth-day of the martyr.” Thus these disciples and eye-witnesses. It was at two o’clock in the afternoon, which the authors of the acts call the eighth hour, in the year 166, that St. Polycarp received his crown, according to Tillemont; but in 169, according to Basnage. 15 His tomb is still shown with great veneration at Smyrna, in a small chapel. St. Irenæus speaks of St. Polycarp as being of an uncommon age.  3
  The epistle of St. Polycarp to the Philippians, which is the only one among those which he wrote that has been preserved, is, even in the dead letter, a standing proof of the apostolic spirit with which he was animated, and of that profound humility, perfect meekness, burning charity, and holy zeal, of which his life was so admirable an example. The beginning is an effusion of the spiritual joy and charity with which he was transported at the happiness of their conversion to God, and their fervour in divine love. His extreme abhorrence of heresy makes him immediately fall upon that of the Docætae, against which he arms the faithful, by clearly demonstrating that Christ was truly made man, died, and rose again: in which his terms admirably express his most humble and affectionate devotion to our divine Redeemer, under these great mysteries of love. Besides walking in truth, he takes notice, that to be raised with Christ in glory, we must also do his will, keep all his commandments, and love whatever he loves; refraining from all fraud, avarice, detraction, and rash judgment; repaying evil with good, forgiving and showing mercy to others that we ourselves may find mercy, “These things,” says he, “I write to you on justice, because you incited me; for neither I, nor any other like me, can attain to the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, into whose epistles if you look, you may raise your spiritual fabric by strengthening faith, which is our mother, hope following, and charity towards God, Christ, and our neighbour preceding us. He who has charity is far from all sin.” The saint gives short instructions to every particular state, then adds: “Every one who hath not confessed that Jesus Christ is come to the flesh, is antichrist; 16 and who hath not confessed the suffering of the cross, is of the devil; and who hath drawn the oracles of the Lord to his passions, and hath said that there is no resurrection nor judgment, he is the oldest son of Satan.” He exhorts to watching always in prayer, lest we he led into temptation: to be constant in fasting, persevering, joyful in hope, and in the pledge of our justice, which is Christ Jesus, imitating his patience; for, by suffering for his name, we glorify him. To encourage them to suffer, he reminds them of those who had suffered before our eyes: Ignatius, Zozimus, and Rufus, and some of their own congregation, 17 “who are now,” says our saint, “in the place which is due to them with the Lord, with whom they also suffered.”  4
Note 1. Ch. ii. v. 9. [back]
Note 2. Eus. Hist. l. 5. c. 20. p. 188. [back]
Note 3. Cat. vir. illustr. c. 17. [back]
Note 4. See also 1 John ii. 18. 22. and 2 John 10. [back]
Note 5. St. Ignatius begins his letter to the faithful at Smyrna, by glorifying God for their great spiritual wisdom, saying, he knew them to be perfect in their unshaken faith, as men crucified with our Lord Jesus in flesh, and in spirit, and deeply grounded in charity by the blood of Christ. He then solidly confutes the Docætæ, heretics who imagined that Christ was not incarnate, and died only in appearance; whom he calls demoniacs. He adds: “I give you this caution, knowing that you hold the true faith, but that you may stand upon your guard against these wild beasts in human shape, whom you ought not to receive under your roof, nor even meet if possible; and be content only to pray for them that they may be converted, if it be possible; for it is very difficult; though it is the power of Jesus Christ our true life. If Jesus Christ did all this in appearance only, then I am only chained in imagination; and why have I delivered myself up to death, to fire, to the sword, to beasts? But who is near the sword is near God: he who is among beasts is with God. I suffer all things only in the name of Jesus Christ, that I may suffer with him, he giving me strength, who was made perfectly man. What does it avail me to be commended by any one, if he blaspheme our Lord, not confessing him to have flesh? The whole consists in faith and charity; nothing can take place before these. Now consider those who maintain a false opinion of the grace of Jesus Christ, how they also oppose charity; they take no care of the widow, or orphan, or him who is afflicted, or pining with hunger or thirst. They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, (says he) because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which was crucified for our sins, and which the Father, by his goodness raised again. It is advisable for you to separate yourselves from them, and neither to speak to them in public or in private. Shun schisms and all discord, as the source of evils. Follow your bishop as Christ his Father, and the college of priests as the apostles; respect the deacons as the precept of God. Let no one do any thing that belongs to the church without the bishop. Let that Eucharist be regarded as lawful which is celebrated by the bishop or one commissioned by him. Wherever the bishop makes his appearance, there let the people be assembled, as wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic church. It is not lawful to baptize or celebrate the Agape without the bishop or his authority. What he approves of is acceptable to God. He who does any thing without the bishop’s knowledge, serves the devil.” The saint most affectionately thanks them for the kindness they had shown him and his followers; begs they will depute some person to his church in Syria, to congratulate with his flock for the peace which God had restored to them, adding that he was unworthy to be called a member of that church of which he was the last. He asks the succour of their prayers, that by them he might enjoy God. “Seeing,” says he, “that you are perfect, entertain perfect sentiments of virtue: for God is ready to bestow on you who desire to do well.” After the most tender salutations of many in particular, and of all in general, especially the virgins who were called widows, (i. e. the deaconesses, who were called widows, because they were often such, though these were virgins,) he closes his letter by praying for their advancement in all charity, grace, mercy, peace, and patience. Saint Ign. ep. ad Smyrnæos, p. 872. ed. Cotel.
  The apostolic St. Ignatius writes as follows, in his letter to St. Polycarp: “Thy resolution in God, founded as it were upon an unshaken rock, I exceedingly commend, having been made worthy of thy holy face, which I pray I may enjoy in God. I conjure thee in the grace with which thou art enriched, to encrease the stock in thy course, and to exhort all that they may be saved. Have great care of unity and concord, than which nothing is better. Bear with all men that God may bear with thee: bear all men by charity, as thou dost apply thyself to prayer without interruption. Ask more perfect understanding than thou hast. Watch, seeing that the spirit which sleepeth not, dwelleth within thee. Speak to every one according to the grace which God giveth thee. Bear the weakness and distempers of all as a stout champion. Where the labour is greater, the gain is exceedingly great. If thou lovest the disciples who are good, thou deservest not thanks; strive rather to subdue the wicked by meekness. Every wound is not healed by the same plaster; assuage inflammations by lenitives. Be not intimidated by those who seem worthy of faith, yet teach things that are foreign. Stand firm, as an anvil which is beaten: it is the property of a true champion to be struck and to conquer. Let not the widows be neglected. Let religious assemblies be most frequent. Seek out every one in them by name. Despise not the slaves, neither suffer them to be puffed up; but to the glory of God let them serve with greater diligence that they may obtain of God a better liberty. Let them not desire that their liberty be purchased or procured for them by the congregation, lest they fall under the slavery of their own passions. Fly evil artifices; let them not be so much as named. Engage my sisters to love the Lord, and never entertain a thought of any man but their husbands. In like manner enjoin my brethren, in the name of Jesus Christ, to love their wives as Christ loveth his church. If any one be able to remain in a state of continency, in honour of our Lord’s flesh, let him be constantly humble: if he boast, or is puffed up, he is lost. Let all marriages be made by the authority of the bishop, that they may be made in the Lord, not by the passions of men. Let all things be done to the honour of God.” Then addressing himself to all the faithful at Smyrna, he writes: “Listen to your bishop, that God may also hearken to you. With joy I would lay down my life for those who are subject to the bishop, priests, and deacons. May my portion be with them in God. Let all things be in common among you; your labour, your warfare, your sufferings, your rest, and your watching, as becomes the dispensers, the assessors, and the servants of God. Please him in whose service you fight, and from whom you receive your salary. Let your baptism be always your weapons, faith your helmet, charity your spear, and patience your complete armour. Let your good works be the treasure which you lay up, that you may receive the fruit which is worthy. Bear with each other in all meekness, as God bears with you. I pray that I may always enjoy and rejoice in you. Because the church of Antioch by your prayers now enjoys peace, I am in mind secure in God; provided still that by suffering I may go to God, and be found in the resurrection your servant. You will do well, O Polycarp, most blessed in God, to hold an assembly, and choose a very dear person fit for despatch in a journey, who may be styled the divine messenger; him honour with a commission to go to Antioch, and there hear witness of the fervour of your charity. A christian lives not for himself alone, but belongs to God.” The holy martyr concludes by desiring St. Polycarp to write for him to the other churches of Asia, he being that moment called on board by his guards to sail from Troas to Naples. [back]
Note 6. St. Iren. b. 3. c. 3. Euseb. b. 5. c. 24. S. Hieron. c. 17. [back]
Note 7. N. 1. and 4. [back]
Note 8. [Greek]. Frigidus ipsis videbatur immanium carnificum ignis. n. 2. p. 1020. [back]
Note 9. Dr. Middleton pretends, that this voice was only heard by some few: but the acts in Ruinart say, by those that were present, [Greek]: Eusebius says, [Greek]: Rufinus plurimi, very many. A voice from heaven must certainly be sensibly discerned to be more than human, and manifest itself sufficiently, to be perceived that it could not come from the crowd. [back]
Note 10. L. 71. [back]
Note 11. Or. 20, 21, 22. 41. [back]
Note 12. The great council of Asia seems to have been held at that time at Smyrna, instead of Ephesus, which the Arundelian marbles show sometimes to have been done. [back]
Note 13. Or president of tie public games, chosen yearly by the common-council of Asia. [back]
Note 14. Dr. Middleton ridicules the mention of a dove issuing out of the wound of the side; but this is only found in some modern MSS. by the blunder of a transcriber: it is not in Eusebius, Rufinus, Nicephorus, or the Greek Menæa: though the two last would have magnified a prodigy if they had found the least authority for any. According to Le Moyne, (Proleg. ad varia. sacra.) Ceillier, &c. the true reading is [Greek], on the left side; which some transcriber blundered into [Greek], a dove. As to the foregoing miracle, that a wind should naturally divest the fire of its property of burning, and form it into an arch about the body, is a much more wonderful supposition of the doctor’s than any miracle. [back]
Note 15. St. Polycarp says himself, “That he had served Christ eighty-six years.” Basnage thinks he had been bishop so long, and was a hundred and twenty years old when he suffered: but it is far more probable that this is the term he had been a Christian, having been converted in his youth, and dying about one hundred years old or upwards, as Tillemont understands it. [back]
Note 16. 1 John iv. 3. [back]
Note 17. Some of the Philippians had seen St. Ignatius in chains, and perhaps at Rome. The primitive martyrs, Zozimus and Rufus, are commemorated in the Martyrologies on the 18th of December. [back]