The Saint’s Death: St. Polycarp

You wouldn’t think they’d care. There weren’t many Christians and they didn’t have any real influence. They were a funny little group in an empire with a lot of funny little groups. Yet the mob in Smyrna in the year 156 wanted to kill the city’s Christians. The mob called them “atheists,” because they did not believe in the gods of the Romans, particularly the emperor. The mob took that as a gesture of defiance.

They caught several Christians and killed them. They really wanted their leader, the bishop Polycarp. The Roman soldiers started a manhunt. He was taken out of the city, but soldiers eventually found him. He fed the men who came to capture him, and talked with them. He asked for an hour to pray before they took him in, which they granted.

On the way to the stadium where he would be executed, the state’s officials tried to convince him to call Caesar “Lord” and to offer Caesar a small sacrifice. It seemed a small thing to them and it would save the state the trouble of killing him. It might even have been an attempt at kindness. Polycarp refused. They tried again when they got to the stadium. He refused again. “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The Ruler’s Threats

Apparently exasperated, the ruler threatened him with being eaten by wild animals. Polycarp replied, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil. It is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.” The ruler threatened him with being burned alive. Polycarp replied, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.”

O Lord, the fire of your love filled the martyr Saint Polycarp with the courage to defy the fear of death for the sake of the Gospel. Grant all your people the grace to love as he loved, to live as he lived, and to die in the faith for which he died, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

— Breviary prayer for the Feast day of St. Polycarp

The mob, eager to see Polycarp die, went into the shops and baths to find wood for the fire. The guards started to nail him in place, but he told them not to. “Leave me as I am, for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.” Surprisingly, they agreed. They tied him up instead. Then Polycarp prayed:

O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption given by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.

The Execution

The fire was lit. The ancient testimony continues: “The fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet smell, as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.” Frustrated, the ruler ordered the executioner to stab him. When he did, “there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.”

The rulers, wanting to keep the Christians from collecting relics of their leader’s death, burned the body. “Accordingly,” his followers wrote, “we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”


The full text of The Martyrdom of Polycarp can be found here. For more stories of the saints’ deaths, go here

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