Monday, January 30, 2017

St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

St. Polycarp was an early apostolic Father, unique because he was a living bridge between the apostles and the next generation of Christian believers. Polycarp was a disciple of John the Evangelist and is said to have received all of Christ's teachings from John himself.  As the church began to grow in the second century, Polycarp became bishop of Smyrna and one of the greatest defenders of the faith at a time when heresies and persecution were rampant in the Greco-Roman world.

Polycarp met St. Ignatius of Antioch as the saint passed through Smyrna in chains on his way to martyrdom. The two saints had a close relationship discussing and even debating matters pertaining to the faith.  One such discussion and debate centered on handling the celebration of the liturgy and when special feasts should be celebrated.  The two went to Rome to meet with Pope Anicetus to resolve their conflicts.  Nevertheless, their love of Christ, each other and the church never hindered their relationship. This can be seen in a letter written by Ignatius to Polycarp which is still intact today.  By the strengthening and encouraging words of Ignatius, Polycarp continued to be steadfast in faith and zealously defended the church, as Ignatius said,“Your mind is grounded in God as on an immovable rock.”  As Polycarp continued to speak out against the heresies, he also encouraged Christians to pursue holiness.  “Stand fast, therefore, in this conduct and follow the example of the Lord, 'firm and unchangeable in faith, lovers of brotherhood, loving each other, united in truth, helping each other with mildness of the Lord, despising no man.  When you can do good, do not put it off, for alms-giving frees from death.  You must all be subject to one another and keep your conduct free from reproach among pagans, so that from your good works you may receive praise and the Lord may not be blasphemed on account of you.  But woe to him on whose account the name of the Lord is blasphemed.  Teach sobriety, therefore, to all, and practice it yourselves, also”  (The Letter to the Philippians of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and Holy Martyr; chapter 10).

Like many other saints of the early church, Polycarp was arrested and put to death for his belief in Christ as documented in a letter written by the Church of Smyrna to the Church of Philomelium.  The letter states that Polycarp had been taken to the Roman arena in Smyrna, where he was put on trial before the proconsul who threatened him with torture and death.  Polycarp stood firm in his faith and was sentenced to be burned at the stake. As the executioners prepared for his execution, Polycarp offered up an incredible prayer of love and praise to God, “Lord God Almighty, Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of Thee, God of the angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in Thy sight, I bless thee, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of Thy Christ, 'unto resurrection in eternal life.' resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.  May I be received today as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in Thy Presence, as Thou hast prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who art faithful and true.  For this and for all benefits I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, through whom be to Thee with Him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all ages to come.  Amen.”  Once Polycarp finished his prayer the executioner lit the stake, but Polycarp remained untouched by the flames as they formed an arch over him like wind in a ship's sail and he himself began to take on the odor of freshly baked bread.  Agitated by the miracle the executioner stabbed Polycarp to death, and witnesses recounted that the martyr's blood itself extinguished the flames.

Polycarp lived the life of the Gospel and the passion of Christ.  He is a prime example of how one can defend the Faith and achieve great holiness in the midst of a pagan world.  We celebrate Polycarp's birth into eternal life on Febuary 23, the day he was martyred on the ancient calendar from the year 156 A.D.  

Saturday, January 14, 2017

St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

The early church faced great persecution under the Roman Empire. Many saints were martyred for believing in Christ: Peter, all the apostles (except for John who was given the martyr's crown, although he survived the cauldron of oil) Polycarp, Cecilia and Justin. Yet history tells of another beautiful martyr who lived around the third century named Agnes.
Agnes was born into a noble and fairly wealthy Christian family, and was a beautiful woman at the age of thirteen. Young men pursued her hand in marriage, but Agnes refused all suitors. She was in love with Christ and promised him her purity, chaste and unspoiled. Because of her refusal to marry, Agnes was reported to the Roman governor and given a chance to change her Christian way. He sent her to a house of prostitution where men could do what they pleased with her. While there, Agnes prayed to her Divine Spouse for protection. As she did, she began to exude a strong aroma of holiness and men who came after her were amazed at her saintly appearance. Other stories suggest that when men dared to touch Agnes, they were immediately struck blind.

After a while the governor commanded she to be stripped of her clothing and dragged through the streets. Agnes continued to pray to the Lord and her hair grew, quickly covering her whole body. The governor finally commanded that she should be beheaded. Agnes was a virgin martyr a supreme witness for the early church. Saints Ambrose and Augustine both state that they witnessed her martyrdom and praised her heroic love of purity.

Agnes was an exemplary example of how Christianity was a life-giving religion for women in her time and culture. We know that the Roman Empire was pagan saturated with the ideology that if women were not wives or prostitutes, they were of no use and should be put to death. This type of ideology still reigns in many areas of the world today, but young women can look to Agnes as an example of courage, who shows them what it truly means to be a woman and to be a bride of the Most-High God. Today St. Agnes is pictured with a lamb in many pictures, symbolizing her virginity and purity; she is patroness of rape survivors and young women. We celebrate her martyrdom and feastday on January 21.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Will the New Year Bring You Peace?

Solemnity of the Mother of God

Happy New Year! 

The life of Jesus begins with Mary, therefore, it is appropriate that we begin the New Year with the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Since Mary is the Mother of God she is the mother of joy, joy to the world.

So the traditional greeting on this first day of the New Year is one of joy.

Happy New Year! Happy New Year!

How many times did you give that greeting to others and is it really possible to find happiness in the New Year?

It would be a mistake to expect perfect happiness in this life. This innate, insatiable drive we all have for perfect happiness can only be satisfied in the next life. As St. Augustine said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” But there is a deep, lasting peace that everyone can have in this life.

What brings us happiness and peace? The answer is to be found in Bethlehem. Look at the Nativity. A beautiful babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger and around him? There is no riches, no fame, no power, no conveniences, no pleasure, nothing but an empty, cold cave on the outskirts of town. Mary and Joseph kneeling before the manger must have been tired, hungry, cold, humiliated. Yet in the midst of all of this, Mary and Joseph are the happiest people to walk the face of this earth.

They teach us the amazing paradox that it is only when we lose ourselves in the love and service of Jesus do we find happiness. Happiness that this world can never give and no one can take from us. Jesus made it very simple, “Whatever you do for one of these least brethren you do for me.” So on this first day of the New Year let us ask for the grace to know Jesus more intimately, love him more ardently and follow him more closely so that this may be a truly Happy New Year!