A disciple of St John
St Polycarp (c69-c155), is perhaps the best known of the second generation of Christians. According to his pupil Irenaeus, he had been “instructed by Apostles, and had had familiar intercourse with many who had seen Christ”.
He seems to have been born somewhere in what is now western Turkey, which at that date had become the heart of the Christian world, many Church leaders having fled Jerusalem before its destruction in AD 70.
Probably in Ephesus he became a disciple of St John, the last surviving Apostle. In old age Polycarp loved to recall his memories of John, who, according to Tertullian, had been responsible for his appointment as Bishop of Smyrna, modern Izmir, in the middle of Turkey’s western coastline.
Smyrna was a centre for numerous pagan cults. No doubt, then, the 50 years during which Polycarp served as Bishop of Smyrna threw up many challenges. Irenaeus, however, makes it clear that he was equal to the task.
On the other hand, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians begins with a charming disclaimer. “I am as far as anyone else of my sort,” he writes, “from having the wisdom of our blessed and glorious Paul.”
He continues: “I have no doubt that you are well versed in Holy Scripture, and that it holds no secrets for you (which is more than has been granted to me).” Yet the manner in which he met his death shows that his faith was indestructible.
Burnt at the stake
Around 155 Polycarp, by then a very old man, visited Anicetus, the 11th pope, and tried to persuade him to adopt the method of calculating Easter used at Smyrna. Anicetus remained unconvinced; the two men, however, pledged enduring friendship at Mass.
Soon afterwards, Polycarp showed his mettle when asked to deny Christ following persecution at Smyrna: “For 86 years I have been His servant and He has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”