Sunday, February 24, 2008

St Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

Truly he is worthy of his name, the Angel of the Church of Smyrna, Polycarp, for he bore much fruit by the grace of God our Saviour, and persevered unto death in bearing witness to him: thus he won the crown of life (cf. Apoc. ii, 8. 10). This great martyr of the early Church has long been one of my favourite saints.

Who could not be moved by the authentic record of his martyrdom, no less than by his own epistle to the Philippians, or indeed by the epistles sent to him and his church, among the famous collection of letters left us by St Ignatius of Antioch?

What, too, of those vignettes remarking his zeal for the truth and terror of heresy: his own account, given to and preserved by St Irenæus, of his master St John the Evangelist fleeing the bathhouse at Ephesus upon sighting a notorious Gnostic, “lest the walls collapse, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within”; and the story of Polycarp himself, while at Rome to consult with the Pope upon the date for Easter, as a faithful disciple of St John, the evangelist of the true Incarnation and Passion, and first enemy of the spirit of Antichrist, rebuking proud Marcion the heresiarch, upon running into him – for, being conjured by the same to “recognize” him, Polycarp responded by saying “I recognize... the firstborn of Satan!” These texts, these words, these deeds, Divine Providence has preserved for us as precious souvenirs of the saintly first Christians.

While in the old rite (a.k.a. the extraordinary form) he is feasted on the 26th of January, in the new rite (the aptly named ordinary form) he is celebrated today, on the 23rd of February – in agreement with the Byzantine calendar.

All was presaged beforehand by St John the Divine, in his Epistle to the Angel of the Church at Smyrna, preserved for us as chapter ii, verses 8-11, of the Apocalypse (Revelation), and appointed nowadays as the first reading at Mass according to the postconciliar books:

“And to the angel of the Church at Smyrna write: Thus says the First and the Last, who was dead and is alive:
“I know thy tribulation and thy poverty, but thou art rich; and that thou art slandered by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
“Fear none of those things that thou art about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tested, and you will haave tribulation for ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life.
“He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches: He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”

It is instructive to note that the Lord addresses the “angel” (the good bishop himself, surely) in the second person singular throughout, except for in the second sentence of verse 10, where reference is made to those members of the Smyrnæan Church who are later recorded as suffering for the Faith by the same Epistle (written by others of the same Church) that goes on to record at length the stirring martyrdom of St Polycarp.

The Roman Breviary and Missal give only a proper 3rd Lesson (not from his own writings, but merely a short biographical sketch, albeit by St Jerome) and Epistle (not the above passage, but I John iii, 11-16) respectively for him, taking the rest from the relevant common; the 1738 Paris Missal has the following proper orations:

Deus, cujus gratia beatum Polycarpum Pontificem tuum in sacerdotium elegit, doctrina ad prædicandum erudiit, potentia ad perseverandum confirmavit; da nobis ex ejus imitatione populum Christianum et instruere vivendi exemplo, et confirmare patiendo. Per…

(O God, Whose grace chose blessed Polycarp thy Pontiff for the priesthood, taught him doctrine for preaching, and strengthened him with power to persevere; give unto us from the imitation of him both to instruct the Christian people by the example of our living, and to strengthen them by our endurance. Through…)

Præsenti sacrificio, Domine, corda nostra purifica; et cum beato Polycarpo Martyre tuo atque Pontifice, tamquam pinguissimum nos holocaustum assume. Per…

(By this present sacrifice, Lord, purify our hearts; and, with blessed Polycarp thy Martyr and Pontiff, receive us as a most rich whole burnt offering. Through…*)

Pater Unigeniti et benedicti Filii tui Jesu Christi, da nos, quæsumus, in tribulatione patientes, partem capere cum beato Polycarpo in calice Christi tui, ad resurrectionem vitæ æternæ; ut te laudemus et glorificemus per sempiternum Pontificem Jesum Christum Filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat…

(Father of Thine Onlybegotten and blessed Son Jesus Christ, give us, we beseech Thee, in suffering tribulation, to take hold of a share with blessed Polycarp in the chalice of Thy Christ, for resurrection unto life eternal; that Thee we may laud and glorify through the everlasting Pontiff Jesus Christ Thy Son, Who with Thee liveth…*)

*Cf. St Polycarp’s own prayer at his martyrdom:

O Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received our knowledge concerning thee, the God of angels and powers, and of the whole creation, and of all the race of the just who lived before thee,
I thank thee that thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, that I should have my portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, unto the resurrection of eternal life, both of the soul and body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among these may I be received before thee this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, even as thou hast prepared and made manifest beforehand, and hast fulfilled, thou who art the unerring and true God.
On this account, and concerning all things, I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, together with the eternal and heavenly Jesus Christ thy beloved Son, with whom to thee and the Holy Spirit be glory both now and for ever. Amen.
(Martyrdom of St Polycarp, 14:1b-3)

The modern rite adapts this last prayer, and its source in the account of the death of St Polycarp, for the proper collect:

Deus universæ creaturæ, qui beatum Polycarpum episcopum in numero martyrum dignatus es aggregare, ejus nobis intercessione concede, ut, cum illo partem calicis Christi capientes, in vitam resurgamus æternam. Per.

(God of all creatures, Who didst deign to aggregate blessed bishop Polycarp to the number of the martyrs, grant unto us at his intercession, that, grasping with him a share of the chalice of Christ, we may rise again to life eternal. Through…)

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