Tag Archives: martyrdom

Saint Polycarp, Heresy, and Lent – February 23, 2018

How many people today have left the Church because they deem the Bible incongruent, mythological and unscientific? This falling away is usually undergirded, whether knowingly or unknowingly, by assumptions made in critical historical and textual analysis of the Bible. Modern scholars have sought over the past couple of centuries to deconstruct the Bible by weeding out prophecies, miracles, supernatural occurrences, and other textual peculiarities from the “historical facts.” This technique of Biblical criticism has been used to try to delegitimize Jesus in the New Testament and Yahweh in the Old Testament. What we are left with, so they say, is that we know little about the “historical Jesus,” if he even existed, and much less about the genocidal, tribal God of the Hebrews.

This is exactly the type of heresy that St. Polycarp fought against in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

St. Polycarp, as one of the prime Apostolic Fathers, had direct contact with St. John and the other Apostles. He had one degree of separation from Jesus. Polycarp himself was a direct disciple of St. John the Apostle. St. Irenaeus, who was a student of Polycarp, wrote in Against Heresies that Polycarp “was not only instructed by the Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen the Lord, but was also appointed bishop by Apostles in Asia and in the church in Smyrna.” He also wrote reminiscently about Polycarp in his letter to Florinus, “I seem to hear him now relate how he conversed with John and many others who had seen Jesus Christ, the words he had heard from their mouths.”

One of the stories that Irenaeus heard from Polycarp was about a time when St. John was in Ephesus. He describes seeing St. John going to take a bath, but upon seeing Cerinthus [a Gnostic heretic] inside the building, he rushed out saying, “Let us get out of here, for fear the place falls in, now that Cerinthus, the enemy of truth, is inside!” Along these same lines, Polycarp himself ran into on one occasion a similar heretic, Marcion. Marcion said to Polycarp, “Don’t you recognize me?” To which Polycarp responded, “I do indeed: I recognize the firstborn of Satan!”

Marcion was a well-known heretic of his day. He espoused a particular semi-gnostic heresy that the God of the Old Testament could not be the God of the New Testament and Jesus. There were “two gods,” or so he thought, in a dualistic world. The Old Testament God was the Demiurge creator of the material universe, who sought to impose legalistic justice with harsh and severe punishments; while, the God of the New Testament gospel was one of kindness, compassion, and mercy. As he found these two dichotomies irreconcilable, Marcion dismissed all of the Old Testament and much of the New. Marcion was, in effect, the first Bible critic.

St. Polycarp was not amused. The early Church historian, Eusebius, records Irenaeus’ account of how St. Polycarp would react to the Gnostics he encountered, saying, “O good God! For what times hast thou kept me that I should endure such things!” Although Marcion did believe in the divinity of Jesus, he was a Docetist, who believed Jesus only had an imitation body. In effect, he denied the physical birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Polycarp responded by quoting St. John, “To deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to be Antichrist.” Marcion distorted Paul’s theology to create an all-forgiving God, and rejected the hard-sayings of the Gospels and the so-called wrathful, jealous God of the Judaism.

Many modernist critics today (i.e., atheists, agnostics, universalists, etc.) agree with Marcion’s interpretation of Scripture. Marcion’s influence from the 2nd century seems to have extended all the way to the 21st century. This modernist attack on the veracity of the Scriptures has certainly contributed to the “rise of the nones” (i.e., those who increasingly espouse “none” as their religious affiliation). They deny that sacred Scripture is the inspired work of the Holy Spirit, and see it rather as the work of fallible men alone. This watered-down version of the faith has even crept into some Christian circles as well. Their mantra is “Jesus is love,” so how could he also be a God of justice?

Interestingly, Marcion’s heresy forced the young Church to deal rather quickly with this challenge to Scripture by assembling and defining the canon, which would eventually take on the form of the modern Bible. St. Polycarp may very well have been one of those early Church leaders who helped define the canon. Polycarp’s own writing “The Epistle to the Philippians” was ultimately not included in the canon of Scripture, but it gives us great insight into the mind and heart of an Apostolic Father who interacted directly with St. John the Apostle.

St. Polycarp is perhaps most well-known for his martyrdom, which happened probably on February 23, 155 A. D. This is now the day we celebrate his Feast day, or, as the account of his Martyrdom refers to it “the birthday of his martyrdom.” “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” is also the first recorded martyrdom themed letter after the New Testament period. It follows a particular genre highlighting the similarities in Polycarp’s death with the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ.

By this time in 155 A.D., Polycarp was an old man in the midst of a repressive pagan, anti-Christian Roman Empire. The Empire was forcing all to publicly offer incense and declare that Caesar is Lord. Those who did not were killed, and in the most barbaric ways, such as being thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Christians were a prime target as many refused to apostatize.

Three days before his arrest, Polycarp had a vision of “flames reducing his pillow to ashes.” Whereupon Polycarp turned to his companions and said, “I must be going to be burned alive.” When the Romans finally seized him, he said peacefully “God’s will be done.” Then, they brought him to the arena with “deafening clamor” full of pagans who wanted to kill him.

It was then that “a voice from heaven” was heard. Here follows a few excerpts of his martyrdom:

“As Polycarp stepped into the arena there came a voice from heaven, ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.'”

Polycarp is then brought before the proconsul for examination. He tells Polycarp: “Take the oath, and I will let you go,” and “Revile your Christ.”

Polycarp’s response is, “Eighty six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The proconsul tells him, “I have wild beasts here. Unless you change your mind, I shall have you thrown to them.”

Polycarp declines again, to which the proconsul says, “If you do not recant, I will have you burnt to death, since you think so lightly of the wild beasts.”

Polycarp rejoined, “The fire you threaten me with cannot go on burning for very long; after a while it goes out. But what you are unaware of are the flames of future judgment and everlasting torment which are in store for the ungodly. Why do you go on wasting your time? Bring out whatever you have a mind to.”

Upon that, they bind Polycarp to a pile of wood to be burned alive “like a noble ram taken out of some great flock for sacrifice: a goodly burnt-offering all ready for God.”

Polycarp proceeds to give his final prayer, offering himself up as a Eucharistic sacrifice in union with the sacrifice of Christ. In part, praying, “I bless thee for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered amongst the martyrs, to share the cup of thine Anointed and rise again unto life everlasting, both in body and soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit.”

With that, the fire is lit and “a great sheet of flame blazed out.” Then, another miracle occurs. The author writes, “we who were privileged to witness it saw a wondrous sight . . . the fire took on the shape of a hallow chamber, like a ship’s sail when the wind fills it, and formed a wall round the martyr’s figure; and there was he in the center of it, not like a human being in flames but like a loaf baking in the oven.” Again, he depicts Polycarp’s martyrdom in Eucharistic terms “like a loaf baking.” They then smell “a delicious fragrance.”

His martyrdom concludes with this:

“Finally, when they realized that his body could not be destroyed by fire, the ruffians ordered one of the dagger-men to go up and stab him with his weapon. As he did so, there flew out a dove, together with such a copious rush of blood that the flames were extinguished; and this filled all the spectators with awe, to see the greatness of the difference that separates unbelievers from the elect of God. Of these last, the wondrous martyr Polycarp was most surely one.” The account comes to a close with the author stating the martyrdom of Polycarp the Blessed is “talked of everywhere, even in heathen circles. Not only was he a famous Doctor, he was a martyr without peer.”

Saint Polycarp offers us an example this Lent. He was a great Apostolic Father who adhered steadfastly to orthodoxy and fought against heresy and Gnosticism. He had a simple but strong faith, and spoke in Eucharistic terms of self-sacrifice. His self-denial led him eventually to his own martyrdom. This Lent we also walk the way of the Cross, in a self-sacrificial union with Christ. We mortify our bodies in Lent with the hope to rise in our bodies with Christ in Easter.





The Burning Passion of St. Francis – October 4, 2016

On his deathbed, Lenin reportedly uttered, “To save our Russia, what we needed . . . was ten Francises of Assisi.” Lenin was right: St. Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. Almost single-handedly, he helped revive the medieval Church in the 13th century with the foundation of his mendicant Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans. He had many preternatural gifts as a mystic, healer, and leader, as well as a special symbiosis with nature. It is not surprising that Dante dedicated a canto in Paradiso to St. Francis, calling him a “prince” who “was all Seraphic in his ardour.” More than these great many gifts, however, St. Francis’ success was rooted in his desire, to live a life in imitation of Jesus Christ, particularly the crucified Christ. Many people today erroneously think of St. Francis as a sandal-wearing, milquetoast peacenik whose greatest legacy was in gracing birdbaths everywhere. Rather, St. Francis lived a life of radical conformity and divine union to the sacrificial life of Christ. In retracing the life of St. Francis, we can see how his divine union with Christ grew and developed through successive stages of personal martyrdom.

As with many young people, especially those coming from a wealthy family, Francis in his youth was given to follow the vanities of life. Tradition holds that he loved wine, food, and feasts, and lived a life of indulgence. The lyric poems of troubadours and wandering minstrels also held sway over his imagination. Perhaps they sparked his daydreams of becoming a gallant knight, fighting chivalrously in a far off crusade. In fact, it was not long before the high-minded youth was caught up in a skirmish in 1202 against the nearby rival city of Perugia. In the battle the young Francis was wounded and taken captive. He was held in prison for a year, during which time he developed a long and protracted illness. Eventually, after his release and his continuing maladies, his thoughts began to turn away from knightly adventures and worldly desires. He then began to spend long hours in intense prayer, religious exercises, and in the contemplation of God. This was his first conversion.

It was in this period that Francis had a miraculous encounter with a leper. He had discerned in prayer that God wished him to deny himself and conquer his self-will. To this end, his conscience was tugging at him about his strong aversion and disgust of lepers. One day, tradition has it that while he was riding through the countryside, he came upon a leper. Recalling his resolution, he approached the afflicted person, gave him some alms, and kissed his diseased hand. Upon remounting his horse, he turned to look back at the person, but no one was there. From this point on, Francis began to visit and minister to lepers in hospitals and other undesirable places, washing their sores, kissing them, and eating with them. With this, he began his process of detachment from himself.

While praying intently in a chapel at San Damiano in 1205, and kneeling devoutly before a large Byzantine crucifix, Francis heard the voice of Jesus. He saw the lips on the image of Jesus move and heard the voice of Jesus say to him, “Francis, go, repair My house, which as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.” Three times Jesus spoke this to him. Francis was overwhelmed by the miraculous vision, and sought at once to repair, literally, the chapel at San Damiano. Initially he sold some of his father’s possessions to pay for the repairs at the chapel. Later, under direction from the Bishop, he understood that it was wrong for him to have taken his father’s wealth. At last, to the astonishment of the Bishop, his father, and many witnesses, Francis stripped his fine garments off piece by piece, and renounced all his possessions, save a hair shirt he had on. With this nakedness, Francis officially detached himself from his father and the world, and embraced a life of poverty.

For several years Francis lived in a small cottage, in an intense life of prayer and severe bodily discipline. He also begged for money to continue repairs to the chapel and other churches. After repairing San Damiano, he moved on to repair San Pietro della Spina, and then, the Portiuncula, or Little Portion, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels. St. Bonaventure later recounted that Francis’ restoration of these three churches symbolized the three orders he would later establish: the Order of Friars Minor, the Poor Clares for women, and the Third Order of St. Francis for the laity. During mass at the Portiuncula, he heard the gospel reading, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” (Lk. 9:3) This made a profound impact upon Francis as if Jesus Himself had commissioned him. He set off with only a common peasant’s tunic tied by a cord, to preach the good news of penance and salvation to all he met.

Francis, the “poor man of Assisi,” continued to live the life of renouncement and poverty. With Francis’ tremendous charisma and preaching, he soon began to develop a large group of followers. They too were converted to a life of radical poverty of Christ, of begging and serving the poor and preaching the Gospel. Their life of self-martyrdom consisted of mortifications, penances, and prayer. In 1209, after Pope Innocent III had a remarkably vivid dream of Francis holding up the papal Lateran Basilica, he gave approval to the first Rule of the Order. They had tonsured haircuts and an austere habit made of coarse grey cloth with a pointed hood and a knotted cord around their waist. Francis was also ordained a deacon; in his profound humility, he did not deem himself worthy to be ordained a priest. Once his Order was established, the friars lived by the rules of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Roman Catholic Church.

Francis also sought to evangelize others and save souls, which manifested itself in his missionary work. In 1219, Francis travelled with the crusaders to Egypt, but not as a knight in battle as he had imagined in his youth, but now as a missionary for Christ. Pope Honorius III had enacted the Fifth Crusade to retake the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Since his initial conversion, Francis had been living a life of spiritual martyrdom and physical mortifications. Now, with the crusaders surrounding the Egyptian city of Damietta on the edge of Cairo, Francis was prepared to offer up his life as a true martyr for Christ. After warning the crusaders that they would lose the battle and suffer horrible losses, they attacked anyway. Once the Muslim forces won the battle, with some 5,000 crusaders killed and another 1,000 taken prisoner, a truce was called. It was at this time with the battle barely simmered down that Francis and one of his companions were permitted to enter the camp of the Saracens and approach the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.

Francis boldly entered enemy territory, prepared to die, armed only with his zeal to save souls. He was immediately beaten and chained by the Saracens, and brought before the Sultan. There, he informed the Sultan that he came as a messenger of God to reveal the truth of Christianity and save the Sultan’s soul. Despite the Imams’ urging to cut off Francis’ head, the Sultan was moved by Francis’ concern for the Sultan’s eternal salvation. One of Francis’ companions described the Sultan, “that cruel beast,” who in response to Francis, “became sweetness itself.” By God’s grace, Francis was allowed to stay for weeks in the court of the Sultan, discussing theology and evangelizing him. The Sultan refused to convert to Christianity, at least publicly and be killed by his followers, so Francis eventually returned to the crusader encampment, undoubtedly to their amazement. According to oral tradition, the Sultan converted on his deathbed and embraced the faith of St. Francis. Francis’ companion, Brother Illuminato, said that after hearing Francis preach, the Sultan “always had the Christian faith imprinted in his heart.” As a lasting legacy of Francis’ encounter, the Franciscans were later made custodians of the Christian holy sites in the Holy Land and Middle East, a position they still hold today. After his brush with martyrdom, St. Francis updated the Order’s Rule of 1221, Regula non Bullata, chapter XVI, on travelling and evangelizing in Muslim territory by quoting the Lord thusly: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Mt. 10:16) His recommendation was to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ, even if it meant persecution and death.

In 1224, St. Francis climbed a remote mountain La Verna for a forty-day fast and spiritual retreat for the feast of St. Michael. On the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, September 14th, while contemplating the passion and death of Christ, St. Francis had a vision of a six-winged Seraphim fixed on a cross and flying towards him. As it came closer, he recognized that it was Jesus with his hands and feet nailed to the cross. St. Francis understood the vision to mean that he himself would be transformed by his seraphic love of God into a perfect image of the crucified Christ. Waking from the vision, St. Francis found he had received Christ’s wounds into his very own body, holes in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. He had received the sacred stigmata as a testament to the oneness of spirit he had with Christ, recalling the words of St. Paul, perhaps the Church’s first stigmatist, “For I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal. 6:17) For the next two years until his death, St. Francis bore the stigmata as a sign for all, enduring this painful martyrdom supernaturally manifested in perfect unity with Christ’s passion.

St. Francis embraced his sufferings out of love for God and his neighbor. St. Bonaventure quotes him as saying, “Nothing would make me more happy than to have you afflict me with pain and not spare me. Doing your will is consolation enough, and more than enough, for me.” It was at this point that the saint composed his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” including the line “May thou be praised, my Lord, for those who forgive for the sake of They love and endure infirmity and tribulation.” Having trouble walking from the wounds in his feet, and his eyes now nearly blind, the little poor man of Assisi approached death on the evening of October 3, 1226. In recollection of his initial conversion, and in perfect imitation with the poverty and death of the Lord, he asked to be placed naked on the ground in anticipation of his own death. With his dying breaths, St. Francis implored his followers to hold fast to the Gospel and the faith of the Church. With that, he entered into his eternal reward.

In meditating on the life of St. Francis we are reminded of the stages of martyrdom he went through in his life, from renouncing his wealth and possessions, to serving lepers and the poor, to placing himself in danger by evangelizing Muslims, to suffering through infirmities, to eventually receiving the very wounds of Christ Himself with the stigmata. As much as anyone in the history of the Church, he imaged Christ perfectly. St. Francis believed in a life of sacrifice, poverty, and humility. It was St. Francis’ seraphic love and humility that led him to create the first creche, or manger scene, in its beautiful simplicity and reverence on one Christmas night for midnight mass. He lived his whole life out of this great love for the Lord, in imitation of the life of Christ. He also believed that vicarious and redemptive suffering, when offered to God, can be meritorious for the salvation of souls. His concern for the salvation of all souls was central to his life. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are all called to complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ and share in His redemptive work, for as Jesus said, “where I am, there shall My servant be also.” (Jn. 12:26) Let us be there now, with St. Francis, our brother, as we honor him on his feast day.