St. Polycarp and the meaning of martyrdom

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
Of all the saints across the Christian centuries one had a special meaning to my father, who by the way, wasn’t even Catholic. That was Polycarp (d. 155 or 156 A.D.), an early church leader whose feast day is celebrated on Feb. 23. What really made an impression on Daddy was the account of the saint’s death.

Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (now the city of Izmir, located on the western coast of Turkey), was considered a person of great holiness. In his youth, he had been a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. As a mature adult, he took Irenaeus of Lyon as one of his own disciples, became friends with Ignatius of Antioch, and wrote an epistle to the church at Philippi in Macedonia.

Polycarp was an old man when, during the Roman persecutions of Christians, he was arrested and taken to the arena in Smyrna for trial. Three days before the arrest he had a vision in which he saw his pillow engulfed in flames. In this manner it was revealed to him that his fate was to be burned alive. Some friends persuaded him to go into hiding, but a young servant, after being tortured, betrayed his master by revealing the location of the hiding place.

Melvin Arrington

When the saintly bishop refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ, the governor first threatened to throw him to the wild beasts, but Polycarp remained steadfast; he simply would not recant. Next, they tried to tie him to the stake and burn him, but the flames surrounded him forming a protective wall in such as way that the fire did not touch him. Finally, one of the governor’s henchmen came forward and stabbed him to death. The centurion then gave the order for the body to be burned. Afterwards, the bishop’s fellow believers collected his bones, conserving them as relics. Fortunately, the written narrative of Polycarp’s death has survived; it is the earliest extant document detailing the martyrdom of a Christian.

At some point during his studies for the ministry Daddy must have read a description of these events. For almost 15 years, he and my mother served as Baptist missionaries in the Amazon Basin region of Bolivia. They spent most of those years living along the banks of the Chapare River ministering to the Yuracarés (Yuras), the indigenous peoples of that area. Mama was a registered nurse. She set up a clinic and provided much-needed medical care for the Yuras. Daddy, in addition to his duties as pastor, made various survey trips into some of the most remote jungle regions searching for nomadic tribes who lived far from what we know as civilization. This was dangerous work, but he felt God had called him to go there, so he went. I believe Daddy thought he might be killed like the Protestant missionaries who, after venturing into the jungles of eastern Ecuador, suffered violent deaths at the hands of the Auca tribe. This may explain, at least in part, why he was drawn to Polycarp and the details of his martyrdom.

Shortly after Daddy returned from the mission field he passed away. He has been gone almost 40 years now, but I can still remember how on several occasions he made references in his sermons to the death of Polycarp. I wish I could have a conversation with Daddy right now about this martyr. In fact, I wish I could talk to him about my conversion to Catholicism and a million other things, including the meaning of martyrdom in the world today.

In our time, more so than ever, Christians in far away parts of the globe are being persecuted and killed for their religious beliefs. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen spoke of a distinction between “wet” and “dry” martyrs. The former, like those in the early centuries of Christianity, shed their blood for the faith; the latter, more typical of our era, have suffered brainwashing and other forms of mental torture at the hands of their Communist or terrorist oppressors. Sheen claims that those in the wet category die only once, while the dry ones die a thousand times.

Here, in this country the persecution hasn’t reached that degree of intensity, and maybe it never will. But those who live according to the teachings of the Gospel will, in some sense, become martyrs, which means “witnesses” in the original Greek. As we go about our lives, we will all have to carry a cross and endure some form of suffering. By taking up that cross daily and bearing it faithfully, we will surely undergo a martyrdom of sorts. Pain, suffering, and sorrow are inevitable in this life. How we react to these trials, be they large or small, is what makes all the difference.

Nobody likes the word “mortification” but that’s what is required. It involves slaying the ego, denying ourselves, giving up something, or perhaps doing something we normally would not be inclined to do, such as taking on an extra burden in order to lighten the load of someone else. Clearly, as St. Josemaría Escrivá says, our attitude should be one of “welcoming generously the opportunities for small, daily sacrifice.” This type of martyrdom confounds the materialists and skeptics of our day because it runs contrary to the spirit of the age, which tells us possessions and prestige are what lead to happiness.

Our sacrifices certainly can’t compare with the sufferings of Polycarp. But we can still be “witnesses” by proclaiming Christ to the culture and by living to serve others rather than ourselves. As Lent approaches, now is the time to start thinking and praying about things we can do, such as performing good works and practicing self denial, to help advance the Kingdom of God.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)