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Bishop of Smyrna (in Asian Minor), martyr (entered heaven this day in 155 or 166)
Sometimes I think that it would be better if you didn’t have it so easy. College life, as you describe, is almost too comfortable. I get the impression that few people around you really care whether or not you live out your faith with gusto, and so you end up leaving the gusto behind and falling into a lukewarm, tame Catholicism. That makes me mad, frankly, because you end up missing out on the intense vitality, the winsomeness, the adventure of living in an active friendship with Christ. What a pity. That would never have happened in the early years of the Church, when worshiping the one true God made you a socio-religious outcast of Roman society, vulnerable to prosecution as an enemy of the state at any moment. In such a turbulent situation the faith of the first Christians took on life or death significance and transformed the mundane into the marvelous. Today’s saint is a prime example.
Polycarp was one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, because he was a disciple of one of the Apostles, in his case, St John the Evangelist. His authority in things Catholic and Christian, therefore, went unchallenged. Likewise, his holiness and fidelity to the teachings of the Apostles won fame throughout the whole Roman Empire, and his own disciples became, in turn, great saints and leaders of the early Church. He was one of the links between the era when the New Testament was composed and the decades when the Church began to grow into the structure we are so familiar with today.
He was already an old man, though still active in his ministry as bishop of Smyrna, when he was victimized by widespread persecution that broke out in Asian Minor under Emperor Marcus Aurelius. When the first Christians there were taken to the amphitheater to be made food for wild beasts, some friends of the saintly bishop prevailed upon him to hide in a nearby village until the persecution passed. But the spectacle of bloody martyrdom only increased the pagan crowd’s thirst for more blood, and, knowing the Polycarp was the leader of the Christian community, they shouted maniacally “Away with the atheists [by which they meant the Christians, who refused to worship the pagan gods]! Look for Polycarp!” Once again, friends arrived before the guards and stole him away to another hiding place, but the guards threatened a slave with the rack in order to elicit information about his whereabouts. They finally apprehended the bishop, who asked only to be allowed to pray a bit before they took him to his death. They granted his wish and waited by him as for two hours he stood and prayed, hands extended towards heaven. They say that his countenance shone so brilliantly at the time that some of the guards began to fear that they had captured a god.
When he arrived at the place where the people were assembled, he refused to denounce Christ the Lord, and the proconsul announced, “Polycarp has professed himself a Christian.” The whole multitude then cried out, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches the people not to sacrifice or to worship!” He was sentenced to be burnt alive. But when the pyre was lit, the flames rose up all around him like great sails, and he himself glowed as if he were iron or hot brass, but he suffered no injury. When they finally slew him with a spear, the officials ordered his body to be destroyed for fear that the faithful would take it and start worshipping him instead of Christ – his witness throughout the ordeal had been so magnificent that he gave the impression of being divine. His body was burned, but his bones were preserved by the Christians. Afterwards, they frequently celebrated Mass over his tomb, drawing strength for their own struggles from the memory of his heroic example.
If you lived in such times, my beloved niece, I doubt that you would find yourself “bored to tears,” as you put it, by practicing your faith. Perhaps the history of today’s saint can jolt you out of your routine and bring you back into synch with the power and the glory of what you have come to take for granted.
Your affectionate uncle, Eddy