Monday, December 14, 2009

Apostolic Fathers: Chapter 8

Polycarp Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and Holy Martyr

One of the more famous individuals from the close of the apostolic era was the man tradition remembers as "Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and Holy Martyr.” Polycarp was born around 69-70 A.D. According to St. Irenaeus, Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Apostle and was personally appointed by Apostles as the bishop of the church in Smyrna (modern day Turkey). St. Polycarp was the leading figure among the churches in Asia in the mid second century. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records that Bishop Polycarp served faithfully for eighty-six years (Mart Pol 9.3) before being heroically martyred on February 23, 155.

Because of his long life and direct connection to the Apostles he was an important defender of orthodoxy against such heretics as Marcion and Valentinus. St. Irenaeus recounts that he knew Polycarp from his childhood, and he revered him as a holy saint. Irenaeus notes, “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.” He recalls the story of Marcion coming to Polycarp and asking if Polycarp would recognize him. Polycarp replies, “Of course I recognize you, the first born of Satan!” (Adv Haer 3,3,4).

St. Irenaeus relates how St. Polycarp journeyed Rome around 150-155 A.D. A dispute had arisen over the date of Easter between the church in Asia and the Church in the West. Polycarp met with Pope Anicetus. Each bishop felt obliged to follow the traditions they had been handed down. Polycarp felt Easter should be celebrated on the 14th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan, while Anicetus on the Sunday after the 14th of Nisan. Polycarp appealed to the practice of St. John and the Apostles, while Anicetus to the custom of his predecessors and to dominical usage. Although the Pope and bishop Polycarp could not achieve common ground in their practice they remained in communion and parted on the best of terms. While there could be no tolerance of the heretical views of Marcion or the early Gnostics, the Church could embrace different liturgical traditions.

St Irenaeus tells us that Bishop Polycarp wrote a number of letters “to neighboring Churches to confirm them, or to certain of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.” Unfortunately only St. Polycarp’s letter addressed to the Philippians remains. The theme of the letter is summed up in Polycarp’s exhortation, “‘Therefore prepare for action and serve God in fear’(1 Pet. 1:13; cf. Ps. 2:11) and truth, leaving behind the empty and meaningless talk and the error of the crowd” (Pol Phil 2.1). The letter is a rousing call to live the Christian life fully and consistently in the midst of the confusion and temptations of the world. The letter is filled with quotations from the New Testament and St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians. One can clearly see the “interwovenness” of Sacred Tradition in his letter. The living interpretive presence of Christ is expressed in the Church through his apostolic ministry. Polycarp notes, “For I am convinced that you are all well trained in the sacred Scriptures” (Pol Phil 12.1). Scripture is the center of the Church’s Tradition and it is made manifest in the preaching, teaching, doctrine and liturgy of the Church.

The Church in Philippi is again battling the heresy of docetism which denies that Jesus came in the flesh. Polycarp complains that these heretics twist “the sayings of the Lord to suit their own sinful desires” (Pol Phil 7.1). Sacred Scripture requires the interpretive presence of the Church. Knowing our faith well also helps us to live our faith in the midst of our daily life. One difficult distraction that Polycarp mentions is greed and the love of money (Pol Phil 2.1; 4.1; 5.2; 6.1; and 11.1). This was apparently the difficulty of a fallen away presbyter of the Church in Philippi named Valens (Pol Phil 11.1-4). Polycarp councils the Philippians to treat Valens kindly in hopes of winning him back from his waywardness.

The ultimate test of a disciple’s faithfulness is martyrdom. Polycarp’s martyrdom is recounted in detail in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (AD 156). This document is a combination of a letter and an act of martyrdom or eyewitness account of martyrdom (Cf. Acts 7, Revelation 6:9-11). The account of Polycarp’s death is the first full account of this type. Suffering death by Martyrdom was considered the ultimate imitation of Christ. The ‘baptism of blood’ of the martyr was considered the equivalent of normal Baptism. Since at least the second century the anniversary of the martyr’s death was celebrated with a feast at the tomb of the martyr and later churches were built over these tombs. The martyrs were venerated as powerful intercessors and their relics were sought after. St. Polycarp’s death is extremely heroic. The witnesses record, “Then the materials prepared for the pyre were placed around him; and as they were also about to nail him, he said: ‘Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails.’” (Mart Pol 12.3). The fire was miraculously unable to kill Polycarp, so his executioner had to stab him with a dagger. His body was later cremated by the soldiers and his friends gather up his bones and began to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.

Holy Mary, Queen of Martyrs, pray for us.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers

Roma-Jan-05-013 I have written a series of articles for the Catholic Key Newspaper in Kansas City , Mo.

The following is a list of posts on this theme so far.
Apostolic Fathers Chapter 1

  • Like Father, Like Son
Apostolic Fathers Chapter 2
Apostolic Fathers Chapter 3

  • St. Clement of Rome
Apostolic Fathers Chapter 4

  • The Didache
Apostolic Fathers Chapter 5

  • The Didache (cont.)
Apostolic Fathers Chapter 6

  • St. Ignatius of Antioch
Apostolic Fathers Chapter 7

  • St. Ignatius of Antioch (cont.)
Apostolic Fathers Chapter 8
  • Polycarp

Friday, December 4, 2009

Apostolic Fathers Chapter 7

St. Ignatius of Antioch (Part II)

As mentioned previously, St. Ignatius was condemned to death during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. His writings give us a unique glimpse of the life and beliefs of the Church at the close of the first century. In his writings we are still very close to Christ and his Apostles. Can we see the face of Jesus reflected in his writings?

St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Philadelphians, speaks of the unity we share through our fellowship or communion through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the focus of the oneness we profess in the creed. It is a sacramental sign of this unity. St. Ignatius writes;

"Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup which leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God" (Ignatius to the Philadelphians 4.1).

Later in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, St Ignatius addresses a problem with the heresy of docetism. Although not a unified movement, the early Christians had to correct the tendency among some early Christians to consider the humanity and sufferings of the earthly Christ as merely apparent rather than real. St. Ignatius links this belief to a very low regard for the Eucharist. He notes;

"They abstain from Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by his goodness. They then who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes; but it were better for them to have love, that they also may attain to the Resurrection" (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 6.2). Seeing the face of Jesus clearly in the face of the early Church allows one to profess as well our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius refers to the Eucharist as "the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ" (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20.2).

Our unity focuses not just on the Eucharist by also on the Bishop. St. Ignatius writes;

"You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. (2) Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop." (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 8.1-2)

This passage highlights the role of the bishop in preserving the unity of the Church. In numerous other passages St. Ignatius emphasizes a divine hierarchy of the bishop, presbyters, and deacons. The Catechism reminds us that the bishop is the "guarantor and servant of the unity, catholicity and apostolicity of his Church" (CCC 1292). The Eucharist is celebrated under the authority or presidency of the bishop. The Catechism notes, "The bishop of the place is always responsible for the Eucharist, even when a priest presides; the bishop's name is mentioned to signify his presidency over the particular Church" (CCC 1369). St. Ignatius observes that only the Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop is valid. It is not permissible to hold an agape feast without the authority of the bishop.

St. Ignatius is also the first Church Father to use the word "catholic." Scholars will dispute whether it is appropriate to capitalize the word as "Catholic." Generally the basic meaning of 'catholic' is taken as the universal Church as opposed to the local church. William Schoedel has pointed out that studies of the original Greek word for 'catholic' make it unlikely that it refers to geographic extension, or universal as opposed to local. In the context of St. Ignatius the meaning of 'catholic' is more likely a reference to an organic unity under the bishop which parallels the universal church is an organic unity under Christ. Schoedel observes, "Thus we may say that the 'catholic' church here is not the universal church opposed to heresy, but the whole church resistant by its very nature to division." Later the unity of the Church reflected in the whole allowed the Church to call herself 'Catholic' in the sense of the fullness of unity in distinction to heresy and in her mission for geographic extension to the whole world (Matthew 28:18-20). The Catechism notes that "the word 'catholic' means 'universal,' in the sense of 'according to the totality' or 'in keeping with the whole.' There is a double sense in which the Church is 'catholic'. The Church is 'catholic' because Christ is present in her (giving her correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession) and secondly because "she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race" (CCC 830-831).

We can see the face of Jesus in the community reflected in the letters of St. Ignatius. As Pope Benedict has recently noted, "In Christ, charity and truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan" (Caritas in Veritate, 1). Just as St. Ignatius answered those who thought Jesus only seemed to be flesh, today we must constantly dialogue with a dictatorship of untruth and the mere appearance of human opinion rather than a truth based in the person of Christ. Holy Mary, Seat of Wisdom, Pray for us.