Brother John Raymond
February 21, 1999
"When the Proconsul urged him and said, 'Take the oath and I will release you; revile Christ,' Polycarp answered: 'Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He has never done me wrong. How, then, should I be able to blaspheme my King who has save me?'" (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1 p. 31) These words of St. Polycarp come from the oldest extant detailed and authentic account of martyrdom that we possess (AD 155/157). It was written by the "The Church of God which sojourns in Smyrna to the Church of God which sojourns in Philomelium and to all the dioceses of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place." (ibid p. 30) Notice the use of the word "Catholic." The word means "universal" and that is precisely what the Church is -- the One and Only Church of Jesus Christ open to everybody.
There is an earlier reference to Catholic and again it involves the Church of Smyrna. Around the year AD 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch was under guard being taken to Rome where he was to be martyred. On his way there, he wrote seven letters, one being addressed to the Christians at Smyrna. In this letter he writes, "Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." (ibid p. 25) This is the earliest use of the term "Catholic" that we have in ancient writings. It is interesting that it is a man of Antioch who first writes the term Catholic Church. This is because it was also at Antioch that the followers of Jesus were for the first time called "Christians." (Acts 11,26)
St. Polycarp was the bishop of Symrna. He is called an Apostolic Father because tradition has it that he was taught by St. John the Apostle, as was St. Ignatius of Antioch. Recently a person in an RCIA program told me she heard that the Catholic Church existed before the Bible did. I told her that the Catholic Church goes back to Jesus who founded it and the Apostles, its first bishops. So of course it existed before the New Testament! Some of our separated brethren like to draw a distinction between the early Christians and the Catholic Church because they do not want to admit that they were one and the same. But as we see both in Biblical and non-Biblical texts, there is no distinction. The Catholic Church can be traced in an unbroken chain back to Jesus and the Apostles - what we call Apostolic Succession. Our present day College of Bishops are the successors of the College of Apostles.
The Church of Symrna writes, "Christ we worship as the Son of God, but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord." (ibid p. 31) Our separated brethren who accuse us of worshipping the saints would do well to read this ancient quote. The witnesses to Polycarp's martyrdom took away his bones, as he had been burned at the stake, and put them in "a suitable place." When they were able, the Church of Symrna assembled in joy and gladness where his relics were kept to celebrate the "birthday," as they called it, of his martyrdom, "Both in memory of those who have already engaged in the contest and for the practice and training of those who have yet to fight." (ibid) St. Polycarp's feastday is on February 23rd. For those with Internet access, you can read both the Epistle St. Polycarp wrote and the account of his martyrdom online. Just go to http://www.cs.cmu.edu/People/spok/catholic/writings.html and look up his name and you will find hyperlinks to both documents.