St. Polycarp and the Response to Suffer

Suffering and Grace

In the first apparition at Fatima (May 13, 1917) Our Lady asked the shepherd children, “Do you wish to offer yourselves to God to endure all the sufferings that He may be pleased to send you,  as both an act of reparation for the sins with which He is offended and an act of supplication for the conversion of sinners?”

Lucia affirmed, “Yes, we do.” Our Lady responded: “Well then, you will have much to suffer. But the grace of God will be your comfort.”

This is a fundamental lesson of Christianity. Christ and Our Lady modeled it. St. Jacinta, St. Francisco, and Sr. Lucia certainly experienced it. Every disciple of Christ must likewise embrace and live this truth.

The Paradox of Chains

In his Catena Aurea,[1] St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that what Christ began is passed on through a ‘golden chain’ up to the present time. This applies to all of God’s divine revelation, which we receive through right doctrine and right worship. St. Thomas notes that from Christ through the Fathers there is a continuity in truth which is passed on to subsequent generations of the faithful.

Chains not only connect us symbolically to past saints and their beliefs, but they also function as mighty instruments which manifest the glory and faith of those who physically bore chains for Christ’s sake. These saints truly rejoiced in the sufferings of their flesh, knowing with St. Paul, they “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ” (cf. Colossians 1:24). Likewise, they experienced the truth of Our Lady’s words, that despite the suffering (or through it), the grace of God was their comfort.

Viewing chains as a grace of suffering, of comfort, and of glory is a paradox of the Christian life. Yet it can be seen everywhere. Consider how a grain of wheat dies to bear abundant fruit, the lowly are exalted and the great are humbled, hatred is conquered by charity, a Virgin gives birth, and the Crucifixion leads to the Resurrection. And so too prison chains become a sign of freedom. As St. Paul states, “I am an ambassador in a chain, so that therein I may be bold to speak according as I ought.” (Eph 6:20)

Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome

Chains as Relics

Physical chains have been venerated by the Church since her earliest days. Her venerable liturgy commemorates the Feast of St. Peter’s Chains (August 1). Rome has enshrined chains in two churches, both linked to the Princes of the Apostles. The Major Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is home to the chains which imprisoned St. Paul. The Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli (above image) contains the chains that bound St. Peter in Jerusalem (narrated in Acts 12). These chains were sent as a gift to Pope St. Leo the Great by an empress of Constantinople. When the saintly pontiff received them, they were miraculously fused together into one. Some have seen this as symbolizing the union between the East and West parts of the Church, which has certainly involved much suffering.

Venerating chains as relics has also been noted among some of the greatest preachers within the Church. In the Letter to the Friends of the Cross, St. Louis De Montfort quotes St. John Chrysostom: “If I had the choice, I would willingly leave Heaven in order to suffer for the God of Heaven. I would prefer dungeons and prisons to the thrones of the highest Heaven, and the heaviest of crosses to the glory of the seraphim. I value the honor of suffering more than the gift of miracles, giving me the power to command evil spirits, shake the elements of the world, halt the sun in its course, or raise the dead to life. St. Peter and St. Paul are more glorious in their prison chains than in being caught up into the third Heaven or receiving the keys of Heaven.

There is another one who lived shortly after the Apostles who also bore heavy chains. He too viewed suffering for Christ as glorious. He serves as a ‘catena aurea’ for us today as he links us with the Apostles and earliest Church Fathers. The Church celebrates his feast on January 26, the day following the Conversion of St. Paul.[2]

Chains that Connect

St. Polycarp was born in ~69 A.D. and martyred in ~155 A.D. He was Bishop of Smyrna (present day Turkey and one of the Churches named in the Apocalypse) and ranks among the Apostolic Fathers.[3] We know that Polycarp knew and collaborated with St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and great martyr. His greatest student, St. Irenaeus, identifies his pedigree as one of the disciples of St. John the Apostle. “[Polycarp] was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ; but he was also, by apostles, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna.”

As a student of St. John the Evangelist, he is possibly the one referenced in Apocalypse 2:8-10:

“And to the angel[4] of the church of Smyrna write: These things saith the First and the Last, who was dead, and is alive: I know thy tribulation and thy poverty, but thou art rich: and thou art blasphemed by them that say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. Behold, the devil will cast some of you into prison that you may be tried: and you shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful until death: and I will give thee the crown of life.”

The two primary sources we have for St. Polycarp are The Epistle of St. Polycarp to the Philippians and The Smyrnaean Letter Describing St. Polycarp’s Martyrdom. [Let me pause here by saying I am honored to even type this saint’s name onto a computer screen, and if you have not read the entire account of St. Polycarp’s martyrdom, please make sure you do. [It can be found here.]

His sanctity, orthodox teaching, and willingness to confront those who contradicted the apostolic teaching is also cited by St. Irenaeus in his work, Against Heresies,

“Don’t you know who I am, Polycarp?” the heretic Marcion asked.

“Oh yes,” said the saint, “I know the firstborn of satan when I see him.”

Polycarp’s life is marked by his boldness and faith. His faith, refined by fire (cf. 1 Peter 1:7), acts as an unbreakable link in this chain between the Apostles and the other Fathers. This golden chain (Tradition!) brings the earliest figures of the Church and their teaching to our present day.

Chains that Bind

As an elderly man, Polycarp is called upon to renounce Christ by the proconsul Statius Quadratus. Soldiers search out the venerable Christian leader. His location is betrayed. He must submit to physical chains. These chains lead him to an arena where the confrontation of his life will occur.

At the stadium, before large crowds, St. Polycarp engages in a riveting repartee with the proconsul, who maddeningly strives to have the respected patriarch renounce his faith.

The proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ”; Polycarp declared, “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?”

After boldly confessing himself as a Christian the proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, unless you repent.”

He answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.”

The proconsul said to him, “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.”

Polycarp said, “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.”

Polycarp is burned alive. In the midst of the burning inferno, he prays and thanks God for the grace he has received in being considered worthy to be a martyr. Those standing nearby testified that a sweet smelling aroma came forth from the holocaust. Scholars studying the prayer have shown how it models a basic structure found in the Roman Canon. As a priest of God, he recognized his suffering and death were uniting him to Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross, which he had so frequently offered in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Unfortunately for the proconsul, the fire did not injure Polycarp. His persecutors were forced to stab him to death. Then they disrespectfully burned his body so as to prevent the veneration of the precious martyr’s remains. Polycarp stands out in history as one of the boldest and most intense figures of the early Church who never wavered and feared nothing in preaching Christ crucified.

Seeing Suffering with Our Lady

In his Letter to St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius of Antioch addresses his fellow bishop. St. Ignatius was being taken in chains to Rome. There he was to be martyred in the Coliseum (~107 A.D). St. Ignatius glorified God that the beasts would grind him like wheat, so that he too would be a Eucharistic offering. St. Ignatius mentions that when they met in person for the last time, Polycarp piously venerated and kissed his chains.

This glory and veneration associated with chains is a magnificent witness to the reality that Christ has changed everything for His followers.

When we understand St. Polycarp this way, we see him as a chain who connects us to the one same true Faith of all the saints. It is this Christian faith which transforms the chains that bind in persecution and in suffering into glories which last unto eternity. As Our Lord forewarned us,

“If you had been of this world, the world would love you as its own: but because you are not of this world, but I have chosen you out of this world, therefore the world hateth you.” (John 15:19)

May we have the faith to view the early Church Fathers as these chains that connect us to Christ by faith. And if the time comes when we are called to bear our own physical chains and suffer for Christ, may we reply as little Jacinta, with a simple “Yes.”


[1] The Catena Aurea is a unique scriptural commentary in which St. Thomas compiles teachings from the Church Fathers. The title in Latin literally means ‘golden (aurea) chain (catena)’.

[2] Regrettably, the new liturgical calendar has moved St. Polycarp’s feast to February 23. These changes confuse the faithful and lessen the theological and devotional impact our feasts are meant to have. For example, St. Polycarp loses his strong connection to the Feast of St. Paul’s Conversion (Jan 25). This day in turn concludes the Octave of Christian Unity, which begins with the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair in Rome (Jan 18). St. Polycarp is meant to be linked with the Apostles Peter and Paul, liturgically and historically. Likewise, he serves as a bridge between East and West on account of his being a bridge connecting St. John the Apostle and St. Ignatius of Antioch with St. Ireaneus of Lyon.

[3] “Apostolic Fathers” is a term used to denote the generation of holy prelates who succeeded the Apostles. They are the bridge uniting the Church Fathers to the Apostles.

[4] The term “angel” in the New Testament is multivalent – it can point to several realities at once. For obvious reasons, the bishops of the Church can be referred to as “angels”.