Years ago, prior to entering seminary, I worked in an office where, during their lunch break, a group of my co-workers would gather in the break room and watch their favorite soap opera. The show was sufficiently ridiculous to be entertaining, so occasionally I’d join them. My favorite storyline was about a character who awoke from her coma, only to discover that she had amnesia! She couldn’t remember anything about herself, and many hours of daytime drama ensued. Although it was in no way educational, the show did reveal how important memory is to identity. Our identity is not something that we create for ourselves out of whole cloth. It is something that is the fruit of relationship, family history, and the transmission of culture, experiences, and beliefs. We are shaped by all of these things, and understand who we are in light of them. That’s true for us as Catholic as well. Ours is a religion grounded in history. To understand ourselves, it’s essential for us to learn about where we come from.
St. Polycarp, whose feast day is Feb 23, is someone to whom many in the ancient Church looked in order to understand themselves. Born in 69AD, he was raised by Christian parents in the city of Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey), and received instruction in the faith from St. John the Apostle, the leader of the Church in that region. St. John ordained him a priest and appointed him Bishop of Smyrna. His close relationship with one of Christ’s dearest followers made Polycarp an important resource in the post-Apostolic age. Polycarp was not known as a great intellectual, but he had a reputation for great holiness, and was intensely devoted to the task of sharing what he had received from the Apostles with those who were entrusted to his care. He was also well-connected to other major Church figures from that period. He knew St. Ignatius of Antioch, another disciple of St. John, who visited Polycarp as a prisoner being transported to Rome for martyrdom, and who exhorted the people of Smyrna to listen to and imitate their bishop. Polycarp collected and distributed the letters of St. Ignatius to other Church communities as reliable Christian teaching. Pope St. Clement, an eventual martyr who had been a close associate of St. Peter and succeeded him as the Bishop of Rome, wrote an important letter to Polycarp as the head of the Church in Smyrna, which Polycarp used in his pastoral ministry. Around the year 153, Polycarp represented the Greek-speaking Churches of the East in a dispute with the Latin-speaking Churches of the West over the correct date of Easter. Though the dispute was left unresolved, Polycarp was warmly received and honored by the Pope, revealing their essential unity in orthodox faith despite this particular disagreement. Finally, Polycarp was the teacher of St. Irenaeus, another important early teacher and defender of true Catholic teaching, and, like Polycarp, a martyr. All of these connections among these early Church leaders of the Church laid the groundwork for the self-understanding of the Church as it emerged from the Apostolic Age and developed through the centuries up to today.
Unfortunately, our age tends to suffer from a kind of cultural and historical amnesia, which brings with it a crisis of identity. By learning more about the Church in the ancient world, however, we begin to remember who we are and how solidly the Catholic Church is grounded in the teachings of Christ, those who knew Him, those who knew them, and so on. Knowing what we have received from them, we will be able to share it with those who come after us.
If you’re interested in learning more about the fascinating history of the Church Fathers, such as Polycarp, Ignatius, and Irenaeus, there’s a good podcast series called “Way of the Fathers” hosted by Mike Aquilina. With Lent rapidly approaching, it would be a worthy thing to add to our Lenten disciplines.