This apostolic and prophetic man, and model of faith and truth, was a disciple of John the Evangelist, successor of Bucolus (Feb. 6), and teacher of Irenaeus (Aug. 23). He was an old man and full of days when the fifth persecution was raised against the Christians under Marcus Aurelius. When his pursuers, sent by the ruler, found Polycarp, he commanded that they be given something to eat and drink, then asked them to give him an hour to pray; he stood and prayed, full of grace, for two hours, so that his captors repented that they had come against so venerable a man. He was brought by the Proconsul of Smyrna into the stadium and was commanded, "Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, 'Away with the atheists.'" By atheists, the Proconsul meant the Christians. But Polycarp, gazing at the heathen in the stadium, waved his hand towards them and said, "Away with the atheists." When the Proconsul urged him to blaspheme against Christ, he said: "I have been serving Christ for eighty-six years, and He has wronged me in nothing; how can I blaspheme my King Who has saved me?" But the tyrant became enraged at these words and commanded that he be cast into the fire, and thus he gloriously expired about the year 163. As Eusebius says, "Polycarp everywhere taught what he had also learned from the Apostles, which also the Church has handed down; and this alone is true" (Eccl. Hist., Book IV, ch. 14,15).
Polycarp was a correspondent of St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the other Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius addressed a letter to him, and mentions him in the letters to the Ephesians and to the Magnesians. Polycarp visited Rome during the time of Pope Anicetus, and found their customs for observing Pascha differed. They agreed to peaceably disagree on this matter. Polycarp was offered the opportunity of celebrating the Eucharist in the Pope's church.
His sole surviving work, the Letter to the Philippians, and an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp form part of the writings usually collected under the title The Apostolic Fathers. The latter is considered the earliest genuine post-biblical account of a Christian martyrdom, and one of the very few genuine such writings from the actual age of the persecutions. It also is one of the earliest accounts of the veneration of relics, as the Martyrdom records that after Polycarp's immolation, the faithful piously gathered up his bones as precious treasures.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp, relates how and when he became a Christian and in his letter to Florinus stated that he saw and heard him personally in lower Asia; in particular he heard the account of Polycarp's intercourse with John the Evangelist and with others who had seen Jesus Christ. Irenaeus also reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, was consecrated a bishop, and communicated with many who had seen Jesus. He repeatedly emphasizes the very old age of Polycarp. The Martyrdom has Polycarp himself give his age on the day of his death as 86 years.
The date of Polycarp's death is disputed. Eusebius of Caesarea dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, circa 166-167. However, a post-Eusebian addition to the treatise The Martyrdom of Polycarp dates his death to Saturday, February 23 in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus—which works out to be 155 or 156. These earlier dates better fit the tradition of his association with Ignatius and John the Evangelist.
As a sharer of the ways and a successor to the throne of the Apostles, O inspired of God, thou foundest discipline to be a means of ascent to divine vision. Wherefore, having rightly divided the word of truth, thou didst also contest for the Faith even unto blood, O Hieromartyr Polycarp. Intercede with Christ our God that our souls be saved.
Through godly virtues, thou broughtest forth for the Lord God much spiritual fruit, O thou most blessed Hierarch, and so didst prove worthy of God thy Lord, O wise Polycarp. Wherefore, on this day we who have all been enlightened through thy holy words extol thy praiseworthy mem'ry and glorify Christ the Lord.