Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr


Amidst the sweetness he is enjoying from the contemplation of the Word made Flesh, John, the Beloved Disciple, beholds coming towards him his dear Polycarp, the Angel of the Church of Smyrna, all resplendent with the glory of martyrdom. This venerable Saint has on his soul the fervent love that made him say, in the amphitheater, when asked by the Proconsul to curse his Divine Master: “Six and eighty years have I served Him, and he has never done me any wrong—nay, he has laden me with kindness. How could I blaspheme my King, who has saved me?” After having suffered fire and the sword, he was admitted into the presence of this King, his Savior, in reward for the eighty-six years of his faithful service, for the labors he had gone through in order to maintain faith and charity among his flock, and for the cruel death he endured.

He was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, whom he imitated by zealously opposing the heretics who were then striving to corrupt the faith. In obedience to the command of his holy Master, he refused to hold intercourse with Marcion, the heresiarch, whom he called the first-born of Satan. This energetic adversary of the proud sect, that denied the mystery of the Incarnation, wrote an admirable Epistle to the Philippians, in which we find these words: Whosoever confesses not that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, is an Antichrist. Polycarp, then, had a right to the honor of standing near the Crib, in which the Son of God shows himself to us in all his loveliness, and clothed in flesh like unto our own. Let us honor this disciple of John, this friend of Ignatius, this Bishop of the Apostolic Age, whose praise was pronounced by Jesus Christ himself, in the Revelations of Patmos. Our Savior said to him by the mouth of Saint John: Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life. Polycarp was faithful even unto death, and has received his crown; and while we are celebrating the coming of his King among us, he is one of the Saints who assist us to profit of the holy season.

The Church gives us a passage from St. Jerome’s book, On Ecclesiastical Writers, in which there is contained the following short notice of our holy Martyr.

Polycarpus, Joannis Apostoli disciplus, et ab eo Smyrnæ Episcopus ordinatus, totius Asiæ princeps fuit; quippe qui nonnullos Apostolorum, et eorum ui viderant Dominum, magistros habuerit et viderit. Hic propter quasdam super die Paschæ quæstiones, sub Imperatore Antonino Pio, Ecclesiam in Urbe regente Aniceto, Romam venit: ubi plurimos credentium, Marcionis et Valentini persuasione deceptos, reduxit ad fidem. Comque ei fortuito obviam fuisset Marcion, et diceret: Cognosci nos? respondit: Cognosco primogenitum diaboli. Postea vero regnante Marco Antonino et Lucio Aurelio Commodo, quarta post Neronem persecutione, Smyrnæ sedente proconsule, et universo populo in emphitheatro adversus eum personante, igni traditus est. Scripsit ad Philippenses valde utilem epistolam, quæ usque hodie in Asiæ conventu legitur.

Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, who ordained him Bishop of Smyrna, was looked up to by all the Churches of Asia, inasmuch as he had not only known some of the Apostles, and those who had seen our Lord, but had been trained by them. He went to Rome, during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, and under the Pontificate of Anicetus, in order to have an answer to certain questions regarding Easter day. While there, he brought back to the faith several Christians who had been misled by the teaching of Marcion and Valentina. Having, on a certain occasion, casually met Marcion, who said to him: “Dost thou know us?” Polycarp replied: “Yes, I know thee as the first-born of Satan.” Some time after, under the reign of Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, in the fourth persecution after that under Nero, he was cited before the Proconsul of Smyrna, who condemned him to be burnt alive; which sentence was carried into effect in the amphitheater, amidst the clamors of the whole people. He wrote an important Letter to the Philippians, which is still read in the Churches of Asia.

The Greek Church sings the praises of St. Polycarp in her Menæa, from which we extract the following passages.

Die XXIII Februarii

Quando fructus ille Virginis, et semen germinans vitæ principium, in terram cecidit, tunc te Polycarpum spicam produxit, fideles nutrientem pietatis verbo et documentis, et eos sanctificantem divino certaminis sanguine et sanctitatis unguento.

When the Fruit of the Virgin, and the Seed that is the germ of life, came on the earth, he produced thee, O Polycarp, as the grain of wheat, that nourishest the faithful with the word and teachings of piety, and trainest them to holiness by the glorious shedding of thy blood, and the odor of thy saintliness.

Quando in ligno crucis vitis vera suspensa elevata est, tunc te fructuosum palmitem extendit, falce incisum venerandi martyrii, et tormentorum torculari agitatum, cujus lætitiæ calicem cum fide libantes, o Pater, veneranda tua certamina glorificamus.

When Christ, the True Vine, was raised up pendant on the Tree of the Cross, then wast thou produced as one of his fruitful branches, that wast pruned with the knife of a venerable martyrdom, and wast put into the wine-press of torture. Drinking his Cup of gladness with faith, we glorify, O Father! thy glorious combat.

Charitatis uvam in anima vere coluisti, o Pater sapiens, et tamquam vinum effudisti fidei verbum; lætificans omnium fidelium mentes, et miraculorum demonstratus es immensum mare; unde martyrum decus apparuisti, igne purificatus et lumine dignatus æterno, o Polycarpe: deprecare Christum Deum dare veniam peccatorum, nobis celebrantibus cum amore tuam sanctam commemorationem.

Truly, O wise Father! didst thou cherish in thy soul the growth of the vine of charity, and didst pour forth the wine of the word of faith. Thou didst gladden the hearts of all the Faithful, and wast like the boundless sea in thy miracles. Therefore, art thou the glory of Martyrs, O Polycarp! for thou hast been purified by fire, and rewarded with light everlasting. Pray for us to Christ our God, that he grant pardon of our sins to us, who lovingly celebrate thy holy memory.

Honeste ambulans et filium lucis pacisque denuncians, noctis primogenitum revelasti Marcionem.

Walking in uprightness, and showing thyself a son of light and peace, thou didst unmask Marcion, the first-born of night.

Firma ratione comburentem flammam supergressus es, o gloriose, quasi tres pueri qui fornacis ignem rore sedarunt, et in medio ignis incombustus permansisti clamans: Benedictus es, Deus patrum nostrorum.

O glorious Polycarp! by thy undaunted soul thou didst overcome the burning fire, like unto the Three Children, who quenched the furnace with dew; and in the midst of the flames, thou wast unconsumed, and didst cry out: Blessed art thou, O God of our Fathers!

Pie coluisti Christi mysticam culturam, et rationabilis victima ipse oblatus es Deo sacrificium acceptabile et optimum, omnino fructuosa victima, Polycarpe ter beate.

Religiously didst thou cultivate the mystical garden of Christ, and thou thyself, the spiritual victim, wast offered to God an acceptable and perfect sacrifice, a victim most fruitful, O thrice blessed Polycarp!

Supra crucem visus, et hierarchico ornamento digne indutus, Pater, in templum Dei introisti proprio sanguine.

Thou wast seen upon the cross, O Father! and being worthily clad with the pontifical robes, thou didst enter, by thine own blood, into the temple of God.

Archipastori Christo præsentandus, a Christo signatus quasi aries insignis, Hierophantes, imitator demonstratus es passionum ejus, et gloriæ effectus particeps, et regni ipsius cohæres.

That thou, O holy Pontiff! mightest be presented to Christ, the Prince of Pastors, as the victim elect marked out by him, thou becamest the imitator of his passion, and art now a partaker of his glory, and the co-heir of his kingdom.

Commemoratio tua ignifera exorta, o Pater, illuminat animas eorum ui illam pie perficiunt, o divine, et omnes participes tuæ divinæ illuninationis afficit, quam digne, o sapiens, in hymnis magnificamus.

Thy Feast, with its blaze of glory, O Father! has risen, enlightening the souls of them that piously keep it, O heavenly man! and making them all partakers of thy supreme brightness, which we worthily magnify in our hymns, O wise Polycarp!

How well didst thou bear out the full meaning of thy name, O Polycarp! for thou didst produce many fruits for thy Savior, during thy six and eighty years spent in his service. The numerous souls won over to Christ, the virtues which adorned thy life, and thy life itself, which thou didst present to thy Lord in its full maturity—these were thy fruits. And what happiness was thine, to have received instruction from the Disciple that leaned upon Jesus’ Breast! After being separated from him for more than sixty years, thou art united with him on this the day of thy martyrdom, and thy venerable master receives thee in a transport of joy. Thou adorest, with him, that Divine Babe, whose simplicity thou hadst imitated during life, and who was the single object of thy love. Ask of him, for us, that we too may be Faithful unto death.

Fertilize by thy prayers, now that thou art throned in heaven, the vineyard of the Church, which, when on earth, thou didst cultivate by thy labors, and water with the blood of thy glorious martyrdom. Reestablish faith and unity in the Churches of Asia, which were founded by thy venerable hand. Hasten, by thy prayers, the destruction of that degrading slavery of Mahometanism, which has kept the East on bondage so long, because her once faithful children severed themselves from Rome by the great schism of Byzantium. Pray for the Church of Lyons, which regards thee as its founder, through the ministry of thy disciple Pothinus, and takes itself so glorious a share in the apostolate of the Gentiles, by the Work of the Propagation of the Faith.

Watch over the purity of our holy Faith, and preserve us from being deceived by false teachers. The error which thou didst combat, and which teaches that all the mysteries of the Incarnation are but empty symbols, has risen up again in these our days. There are Marcions, even now, who would reduce all religion to myths; and they find some few followers; may thy powerful prayers rid the world of this remnant of so impious a doctrine. Thou didst pay homage to the Apostolic Chair, for thou, too, wouldst see Peter, and didst journey to Rome, in order to consult its Pontiff on questions regarding the interests of thy Church of Smyrna. Defend the rights of this august See, whence alone are derived both the jurisdiction of our Pastors, and the authoritative teachings of Faith. Pray for us, that we may spend the remaining days of this holy Season in the contemplation and the love of our newborn King. May this love, accompanied with purity of heart, draw down upon us the merciful blessings of our God, and at length, after our course is run, obtain for us the Crown of Life.


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