St. Polycarp: Christian Hero
by Sarah Phillips
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:12
Christian. When you hear the word, what images come to mind? It's too easy for me to approach the faith only in a modern context.
But there is so much more to professing faith in Christ than what we see today. Whenever I need a little dose of context, I read about heroic Christians from other eras. This week, I came across a Christian in a unique position: he was among the first generation of Church leaders after the apostles passed away.
St. Polycarp, a 2nd century bishop of what is now part of Turkey, was a disciple of John the Apostle. St. John, often known as the "beloved disciple," was privileged to stand at the foot of the Cross. He knew and cared for Mary, Jesus' mother. He was in the upper room after the Resurrection and was a member of the original twelve.
St. Polycarp was one of the first Church leaders who did not get to do any of these things. Perhaps this seems like an easy position to be in. After all, Polycarp knew those who witnessed Christ's life with their own eyes. But being a second generation Church leader wasn't a comfortable position. It meant you were entering unknown territory - territory filled with disputes and heresies that threatened to destroy Christianity in its infancy. These leaders had to place incredible faith in the Holy Spirit to guide them.
Not only did Polycarp and his peers face disagreements within the Church, but they also faced pagan persecution from the outside. During this time, Christians were called "atheists" because they rejected the predominant polytheistic beliefs of their culture. In these early days, pagans would burn Christian "atheists" or feed them to wild animals.
Polycarp stayed grounded by keeping his focus on Christ. He was known for being very tough on heresy but gentle on fellow believers who disagreed with him on non-essential details of the faith. When the eastern and western churches could not agree on how and when to celebrate Passover and Easter, Polycarp did not force the issue with other leaders when it became apparent that both approaches were true to the gospel.
St. Polycarp also relied heavily on a deep prayer life. He prayed specifically for people he encountered and the needs of his particular era. He was committed to leading his fellow Christians effectively and never sought glory for himself.
Although Polycarp was well-loved and respected by both pagans and Christians, he was keenly aware that one day he may face martyrdom. When his time finally came, he was already eighty-six years old, and he went willingly. He could have pledged his allegiance to Caesar to save himself, but instead Polycarp told his captors, "If you imagine that I will swear by Caesar, you do not know who I am. Let me tell you plainly, I am a Christian."
After his death, Christians kept his bones in his memory and as a reminder of the persecution the early Christians faced.
In some ways, Polycarp faced situations unfamiliar to us and yet in other ways, his story reminds us that the trials we face today are not as unique as they may appear. If we keep our focus on Christ and our days filled with prayer, we can continue the legacy the faithful left to us almost 2,000 years ago.
Intersecting Faith & Life: Do you find yourself distracted from love of Christ because of bickering in your local church or challenges from those who don't believe? Take a lesson from Polycarp. Spend additional time in prayer this week to refocus, refuel and discern the best way to proceed.
Reference: "Saint Polycarp," Catholic.org
The Characters of Christmas is a podcast created to help you take a fresh look at the Christmas story by getting to know the minor characters that played a part in Jesus’ birth. It is the companion to Dan Darling's book "The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus."