St. Polycarp of Smyrna
Bishop and Martyr
As always, first the facts. Polycarp’s life story is one of those from the earliest days which we can say is almost certainly 100% authentic. This is not to say that other early saints weren’t “real”, but that the details of certain legends surrounding their lives might not be easily verifiable. With Polycarp, this is not the case. His biography was carefully written by the Church Fathers at Smyrna and edited by Eusebius. We know that he became a Christian as a young man, during the lifetime of and under the influence of St. John the Apostle. John made him Bishop of Smyrna before his own exile to Patmos. Among those who either wrote of or corroborate the life of Polycarp are Irenaeus of Lyons, Jerome, and the writer Papias.
Two things stand out from his illustrious life. First, Polycarp went to Rome to give counsel to the pope (Anicetus) on the date of Easter. Under the guidance of Polycarp (rightly or not) it was established that the Eastern and Western Churches might both follow their own customs. Now in Polycarp’s day there was not as clear a distinction yet between the “Eastern” and “Western” practices of Christianity as would emerge with the complete split of the Empire in centuries to come. Still, the precedent was set and to this day there is talk of a “unified date of Easter” for all Christians.
Second, Polycarp’s martyrdom stands in testament to God’s love for the man. Marcus Aurelius ordered him to be burned. According to eyewitness accounts, the flames formed an arch around Polycarp but did him no harm. Aggravated by this, his captors thrust a sword into him. Accordingly, such blood issued forth that it quenched the flames.
Still confused about the title? It’s just a pun on his name. My sister Bridget and I used to come up with fun names for the saints and ways to remember them. God gave us a gift with this guy. I mean, come on! Poly-Carp? Really, what else were we supposed to do?
For the record, his body was eventually incinerated. His bones were removed by the faithful and are housed in the church of San Ambrogio in Rome.