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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harvey

Saint Polycarp & the Apostolic Fathers: Windows into the New Testament Church

saint polycarp

There are various reasons people question their Catholic faith (or any faith/religion). One might wonder if the Catholic Church is the true Church or if they should consider some other Christian tradition in order to discover the true and pure form of Christianity. Today we celebrate the optional memorial of Saint Polycarp. In honor of his life and death, I suggest inquirers into the historicity of Catholicism study Saint Polycarp and his associates.


Saint Polycarp was part of a small and exclusive group known as the Apostolic Fathers. The Apostolic Fathers are those in the earliest years of the Church who had a direct association with apostles and whose writings remain that allow a clearer picture of the Catholic world from which the New Testament originated. Sadly, not many of his writings have survived. There is his letter to the Philippians, and a text on his martyrdom.


Saint Polycarp’s association with the apostles is through Saint John the Apostle. He became Christian because of Saint John, and God’s grace, and passed on everything he learned from the apostle to his students and flock. The most famous Christian leader to receive this gift from Saint Polycarp was Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. Saint Polycarp served as bishop of Smyrna for nearly seventy years (and yes, the early Church had bishops). He was martyred around AD 155.


Saint Irenaeus recounted Polycarp with fondness and respect,


For, while I was yet a boy, I saw you in Lower Asia with Polycarp, distinguishing yourself in the royal court, and endeavoring to gain his approbation. For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse — his going out, too, and his coming in — his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. -Fragment 2


Saint Irenaeus also recounts for us a time that this early Christian bishop met with the pope to discuss a date for Easter (all Christians still don’t celebrate a common Easter date), and recounts how the pope respected Polycarp despite their differences.


And when the blessed Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus, although a slight controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points, they were at once well inclined towards each other [with regard to the matter in hand], not willing that any quarrel should arise between them upon this head. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always [so] observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect; so that they parted in peace one from the other, maintaining peace with the whole Church. -Fragment 3 

 

Saint Irenaeus (a Doctor of the Church) and the pope of that time respected Saint Polycarp. He was clearly an important figure in the early Church. If you find yourself interested in Catholicism or struggling with your Catholic Faith, something you can do to better understand the historicity of Catholicism is to study the life and writings of the Apostolic Fathers that knew the apostles and lived when the New Testament was initially coming together (but prior to the Catholic Church establishing the New Testament Canon). To do so, I would encourage you to begin researching the following (CLICK HERE for access to all the below and more): 


  • The Didache: Teaching of the Twelve Apostoles 

  • The letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (one is written to Polycarp) 

  • The letter and martyrdom of Saint Polycarp mentioned above 

  • Pope Saint Clement’s letter to the Corinthians 

  • The Shephard of Hermas 


Studying someone like Saint Polycarp is not a replacement for prayer, Eucharist, and the Scriptures, but it will give you a clearer view of the Church in its earliest years.


Saint Polycarp, Pray for us.  

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