A Modern Retelling of Polycarp’s Martyrdom

Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, and show yourself a man, O Polycarp!” No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp.

On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to your old age”, and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Cesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.”

But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.”

Then, 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?”

The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, unless you repent.”

But 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.”

But again 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.”

But 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.”

This, then, was carried into effect with greater speed than it was spoken, the multitudes immediately gathering together wood out of the shops and baths; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them in it. Just as they lit the fire Clement of Antioch ran to Polycarp and exclaimed “My dear bishop, what are you doing?”

The Godly saint said, “I am refusing to renounce Christ. I am going to attest to his grace in my life, even if it means I must die.”

Clement was confused and told the saint, “Do you not realize that you have a flock to consider? There are many faithful Christians who need your support. Why would you allow them to sentence you to death when you can simply swear by the fortune of Cesar, even if you do not mean it in your heart, and you will be spared. You will then be able to return to you flock and preach the Gospel and help many souls discover the truth.”

Polycarp replied, “How can I renounce Christ? Even if I pay lip service to Cesar, that will be an act of apostasy, and I will never renounce my Lord who bought me.”

Clement replied, “But Polycarp, you have mitigating circumstances as you are being pressured to renounce Christ and that reduces the objectively grave sin to a venial state. You will still be in communion with God and yet you can return to your flock and do good.”

The saint looked at the man unimpressed and exclaimed, “What kind of sophistry is this? With this line of reasoning, you can excuse anything!”

Clement replied, “But Polycarp, I am not saying anything heretical. Can you name one thing that I have said that would violate a dogma of the church?”

The saint looked surprised and said, “You know, you do have a good point there. You did not deny any dogmas of the church and grave sins can be reduced to venial sins when there are mitigating circumstances, such as pressure, so, I believe I will pay lip service to Cesar. Then, I can return to my flock and continue preaching the good news.”

And so it came to pass that Polycarp swore by the fortune of Cesar and returned to his flock, having committed a mere venial sin. From that day, henceforth, all Christians decorated their Libelli with the image of Clement of Antioch and Christians no longer had to suffer for the name of Jesus. Deo Gratias!

Leave a Reply