Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp

Reading N°44 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Providence has, at least, permitted to come down to us the authentic Acts[1] of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, disciple of St. John the Apostle. This venerable witness of the Apostolic times was the victim of one of those popular disturbances stirred up by the enemies of the Christian Church. It occurred in A.D. 155, under the proconsulate of Statius Quadratus, while Antoninus Pius was emperor. Polycarp had reached the age of eighty-six years. To the stadium, where the proconsul was then seated, the mob led him with indescribable tumult, in which could be heard especially this shout: "Death to the atheists!" But we will let the precious document speak for itself, somewhat abridging the account.

The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp
Mural, St. Polycarp (Izmir, Turkey)
Raymond Péré

The proconsul sought to persuade Polycarp to deny Christ, saying: "Have respect to thy old age," and other similar things, according to their custom, such as, "Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent and say: Away with the atheists." But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said: "Away with the atheists." Then the proconsul urging him, and saying: "Swear, and I will set thee at liberty; reproach Christ." Polycarp declared: "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?" When the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said: "Swear by the fortune of Caesar," he answered: "Since thou pretendest not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian." The proconsul then said to him: "I have wild beasts at hand." But he answered: "Call them, then. It is well for me to leave this world for a better." Then the proconsul said to him: "I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts." But Polycarp said: "Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, but art ignorant of the fire of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly."
While Polycarp spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace, so that not merely did it not fall as if troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished.
The crowds cried out that Polycarp should be burnt alive; and they immediately gathered together wood and fagots out of the shops and baths. The funeral pile was made ready. When they had bound him, placing his hands behind him, he looked up to heaven and said: "Lord, I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and in all coming ages. Amen."
When he had pronounced this amen, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And we then beheld a great miracle. The fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. Then those wicked men commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. The centurion then placed the body in the midst of the fire and the fire consumed it.[2]

Emperor Antonius Pius (138-161)
Nothing changed in the religious policy of the Empire under Antoninus Pius. He succeeded Hadrian in A.D. 138 and held power until 161. The surname given him by the Roman people and preserved by history is based on the veneration he showed for his adoptive father Hadrian, on the veneration he professed for the old memories of Rome, and on the moderation he exercised in the government of the Empire. Antoninus Pius guided the civilization and power of Rome to its apogee. But unfortunately he shared the baleful prejudice of his predecessors, looking upon the Christian religion as an enemy of Roman civilization. He merely prescribed, and not always with success, that order and regularity be adhered to in prosecuting the disciples of Christ.


[1] "These Acta defy the hostile efforts of criticism. They were written less than a year after the event." (Leclerq, Les Martyrs, I, 66.)
[2] Funk, Patres apostolici, I, 314-345. On the authenticity of this account, see ibidem, pp. ci-cv.


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