St Polycarp (c69-c155), is perhaps the best known of the second generation of Christians. According to his pupil Irenaeus, as a youth 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 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 İzmir, in the middle of Turkey’s western coastline.
Smyrna was a centre for numerous pagan cults. “I know of thy tribulations and poverty (but thou art rich),” we read of the city in the Book of Revelation, “and I know of the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”
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, describing him as “a man of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness to the truth than Valentius and Marcion and the rest of the [Gnostic] heretics”.
“With what gravity,” Irenaeus recalled, “he everywhere came in and went out, what was the sanctity of his deportment and the majesty of his countenance, and what were his holy exhortations to the people.”
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.” This did not prevent him from warning sternly against the love of money and the spiteful tittle-tattle of widows.
“I have no doubt that you are well versed in Holy Scripture”, he continues, “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.
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 under 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?”
Killed by the sword, he was burnt at the stake.