By Catholic Digest Staff
Feast Day: February 23
During a pagan festival in 155, a bloodthirsty crowd, having just killed a young man named Germanicus, demanded that all “atheists” (meaning Christians) be executed. The shout of “Fetch Polycarp!” carried through the mob, and the local magistrates went to a nearby farm where the elderly Apostolic Father was calmly waiting. Polycarp was from the generation of Bishops who had received their teachings directly from the apostles or disciples. It is believed that he was instructed by St. John the Evangelist, the youngest of the apostles. Polycarp became the bishop of Smyrna in 107, and encountered St. Ignatius of Antioch (chained and being brought to Rome at the time) who implored him to take care of his church. Polycarp wrote many letters, and the one that survived was regarded as having almost canonical importance. He was known for being very peaceful even when he disagreed with other church members, and always resolved differences of opinion respectfully.
When the officials came to arrest him, he offered them supper and then went outside to pray alone. Afterward he was brought to the city on a donkey, where he was questioned by the chief of police, and condemned to death. The ruthless crowd cheered, and Polycarp asked to be burned alive, recalling a dream of lying on a flaming pillow. They bound him to a stake and eagerly lit a great fire around it, but the flames “took the shape of a vaulted room, like a ship’s sail filled with wind, and made a wall round the martyr’s body” leaving him untouched. Undeterred, his executors thrust a sword into his neck, and “there came out a stream of blood that quenched the fire, so that the whole crowd was astonished at the difference between the unbelievers and the elect.” The commemoration of his martyrdom established the tradition of celebrating a martyr’s death date, their dies natalis “birthday into heaven” in their honor.