Polycarp was an Apostolic Father - a man who knew and conversed with one or more of the Apostles. As with his friend and fellow bishop Ignatius, Polycarp was a pupil of the Apostle John and was converted to the faith after hearing the preaching of the Apostles. Polycarp led the church of Smyrna in Asia Minor through the first half of the Second Century, until his death around the year 155. He wrote many letters during his time as bishop, but only one survives – that which he wrote to the church in Philippi.
Polycarp was born sometime around the year A.D. 69 and was well over eighty years old when he was martyred by being burned at the stake. As with his friend Ignatius, the long life of this Christian bishop, together with his first-hand knowledge of Apostolic teaching, makes Polycarp an invaluable witness to the Church’s foundational roots. Those who were taught by Polycarp throughout his tenure as bishop received authentic doctrine which Polycarp had received straight from the mouths of the Apostles themselves. Polycarp and Ignatius bridge the gap between the Age of the Apostles and the following centuries of persecution and hardship faced by the fledgling Church.
Polycarp also bears witness to the internal struggles of the Church as cultural differences between the East and West began to come to the fore. Irenaeus tells us of the controversy surrounding the date for the celebration of Easter. Those in the East, including Polycarp and his church in Smyrna, celebrated Christ’s Resurrection annually on the fourteenth day of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar, thus following the traditional time for sacrificing the Paschal Lamb in preparation for Passover. This meant that Easter could fall on any day of the week, depending on the lunar cycle for that year. Churches in the West (including Rome) celebrated Easter every year on the following Sunday so that the precise calendar date was not fixed. They felt that it was important to recall the Resurrection on the same day of the week on which Jesus rose and the same day on which Christians observe the Eucharistic meal.
Irenaeus, recounts that Polycarp was called to Rome around the year 150 to confer with Anicetus, the bishop of Rome, concerning the date of the Easter celebration. The Roman pontiff hoped that Polycarp would change to the West’s observance of the Resurrection. But Polycarp resisted, insisting that he received his tradition from the Apostle John. In the end, neither bishop agreed to change the custom held by his respective church. Nonetheless, the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Smyrna parted on good terms and agreed to disagree on this matter. And so the East and West continued to keep differing dates for their celebration of Easter. (Interestingly, Irenaeus, although he was a student of Polycarp, abandoned the East’s practice, and embraced instead the Roman custom of Sunday Easter.)
At least three important conclusions can be drawn from this event. First it can be noted that Sunday had become such a fixed point of reference for Christian worship that in the West, despite a strong tradition otherwise in the East, Sunday worship determined the date for the observance of Easter. Polycarp, a staunch supporter of Apostolic Teaching did not dispute the West’s claim to Sunday worship, nor did he condemn Rome for observing Easter on this day. The two parties went their separate ways amicably. Certainly Polycarp could have chastised Anicetus and the Western churches for rejecting the fourteenth of Nisan celebration if it had been a key component of Apostolic Teaching as he understood it from the Apostle John, but he did not. Obviously Polycarp respected the Sunday observance as Rome’s prerogative regaurdless of the Apostle John’s teaching. Polycarp did not insist that the fourteenth of Nissan teaching should overrule the Roman bishop’s decision. This gives strong support to the early tradition within Christianity of Sunday as the Lord’s Day. Sunday worship was accepted by Polycarp as justification for Rome to decide the date of Easter for churches in the West.
This transference of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday and the West’s practice of a Sunday Easter both support the idea of an authoritative Church in the early centuries of Christianity. There is no specific Biblical mandate for Sunday worship except a few passing remarks that seem to suggest the beginnings of such a tradition. We do though have the words of Ignatius on the subject (which we examined earlier) in which he insists that Sunday worship was the norm in First Century Christianity. And now we see that Polycarp, another student of the Apostles, accepted Sunday as the day of Easter for the Western churches even though he had received a different tradition from John. Apparently the Church had the authority to establish and modify the days of worship and annual liturgical celebrations, and Polycarp did not dispute the Roman bishop’s authority to maintain this practice, as he left Rome on good terms.
The second lesson we can take away from this Easter dispute is the position of honor held by Rome among the churches in the mid-Second Century. Here we have Polycarp, a well respected bishop, a man who received his training in the faith from the Apostles; he was converted by John, and was the first successor to the Apostle in Smyrna. He had been a companion to Ignatius (also highly regarded as a bishop and martyr) and shared in his friend’s prestige and renown. At the time he confronted Anicetus in Rome, he was an old man - around eighty years old – and as such, he served as one of the last remaining voices in the Church who could personally attest to the Apostles’ own preaching. But despite his prominent status and despite the frailty that came with his age and in spite of the perils of travel in those days, Polycarp made the long journey to Rome…Anicetus did not go to Smyrna.
It would seem rather odd that an aged witness to Apostolic Preaching would be required to make such a long and arduous trip at a time when Christians risked life and limb for their faith. Furthermore, by going to the city of Rome itself, the capitol and center of the Empire, the risks were surely heightened. Why would Anicetus, who was further removed from the Apostles than Polycarp (being the tenth successor to Peter), not travel to Smyrna out of respect for Polycarp’s position and age? Why should an Apostolic Father be expected to travel so far to meet with what would seem to be his junior in episcopal rank?
If we call to mind Ignatius’ words of praise for Rome written a few decades prior to this event, an answer begins to suggest itself. Ignatius described the Roman church in the following terms: “…worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love…” And so too, we should recall the letter written by Clement of Rome (the third bishop after Peter) to the Corinthians, in which he intervened in a dispute among the Christians there - seeming to invoke an authority to do so. At this early date, Rome’s influence was far-reaching and her honor and prestige widely acknowledged. Polycarp’s visit to the Roman Bishop (younger in age, but influential in his office) does not then seem so out of place. We have here a picture emerging of a Roman primacy acknowledged by the First and Second Century Christians, including Polycarp of Smyrna.
Our third observation we can arrive at after carefully considering the implications of our previous two conclusions. We have seen that the early Church relied on the witness of men like Polycarp and his testimony to Apostolic Teaching to pass on the authentic faith. But we have also noted that such teachings may result in conflicts and must be weighed one against another among the various traditions (such as the two competing dates for the celebration of Easter). Thus we can see that the Church has the task of sorting out which traditions are essential to the faith and which can be safely compromised. Also we have shown that bishops play an essential role in conferring with one another (as in the case of Polycarp and Anicetus) to arrive at a conclusion on matters of faith. But among these bishops, the Roman church has a place of honor that surpasses that of the other churches.
So our third and final conclusion must be that the function of the early Church closely resembles that of the Catholic understanding of ecclesiology, in its hierarchical structure as well as its reverence for Apostolic Tradition. It is the Church’s responsibility, specifically through the bishops in communion with Peter's successor, to preserve the faith handed on from the Apostles and ensure unity among all believers and soundness of doctrine. In this event from the life of Polycarp we see that the Church has the authority to govern the worship of the Christian faithful. Diversity can still be found within the Catholic fold, but wherever such divergent practices exist we must travel with Polycarp to Rome, we must seek the council of Peter, and preserve the fraternal bond. Unity finds its center in Rome.