St Polycarp

Bishop of Smyrna (in Asian Minor), martyr (entered heaven this day in 155 or 166)

Dear Polly,

Without wishing to offend you, my dear niece, I must, in conscience, offer the smallest of comments in response to your last note.  WAKE UP!

It seems that the frigid winter air and the long nights have put your faith to sleep.  Love, my dear somnambulist, does not require sunshine and good feelings.  You can love as deeply and as meaningfully in the midst of banality as you can in the midst of novelty.  Love is about fidelity, fidelity to Christ, to his will for you, to his hopes and dreams for you, to his friendship, to his command to love your neighbor.  So you mustn’t let the dreariness of New England’s winter lull your heart to sleep.  Maybe the dramatic example of today’s saint can help wake you up.

Polycarp was one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, because he was a disciple of one of the Twelve Apostles, 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 a widespread persecution that broke out in Asian Minor under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  When the first Christians there were taken to the amphitheatre 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 that 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, though 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 testimony 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.

Pretty amazing stuff, isn’t it?  Well, that’s what love does: it makes you shine like the sun, even when you haven’t seen the sun for weeks at a time.  So ask Christ to stir up your heart, so you can stir up some heat.

Your sun-loving uncle,


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