St. Polycarp of Smyrna and the Virtue of Hope

A Protestant friend of mine who is in a relationship with a Tridentine-Mass-going boyfriend recently texted me:

“Hey have you read the death of this guy named Polycarp….like from way back in the day?”

“I have!” I responded, trying to sound excited even though I had taught a lesson about him to my students only a day before.

“His story made me cry. It was so beautiful. I just feel like If God worked through Polycarp’s life like that, he can certainly work through mine. My boyfriend just made me read it thank God!”

St. Polycarp of Smyrna is one of those go-to saints that any apologist should have in his back pocket in order to defend the Ancient and Apostolic faith. I mean, what’s not to love?  He was a disciple of Saint John the Apostle, He was a real-deal bishop who believed in his own Apostolic Succession, and he died one of the most boss deaths in Christian History. But if we reduce St. Polycarp to his usefulness in defending the Catholic faith, we lose the richness of his witness to our modern age.

The death of St. Polycarp finds one of its many climaxes in his confrontation with the proconsul sentencing him to death for his refusal to recant his Christianity.

The proconsul then said to him, I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, unless you repent.

But he answered, Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.

But again the proconsul said to him, I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.

But Polycarp said, You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.

Who among us has found such courage in Christ that we would tell our captors to not wait too much longer in bringing about the wild beast to tear us limb from limb? What gives a  man such courage? I think that the only possible explanation is the theological virtue of hope.

When asked what exactly hope is, most of us would safely respond that hope helps us to “get through the dark times” and “push through to the other side”. To a large extent, there is nothing particularly problematic in that approach. But I think the Catechism offers a more holistic account of the virtue. It states:

1817 Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit…”The Holy Spirit . . . he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”85

We see here that hope is primarily concerned with the happiness human beings receive in light of their detachment from things which are not God. In other words, Hope isn’t just the kind of thing you “dig deep” for in times of trouble. Hope is a theological virtue which allows us to always remember what Christ has already accomplished by his Cross and Resurrection. It is a happiness that springs, not from the good God does in our lives right now, but from knowledge of the good that God promised to effect by his sacrificial love.  Hope is a world-view shift that allows us to see the world as it actually is, fallen but infinitely loved and redeemed by the Word of God.

In this sense, Christians do not “dig deep” to find our inner strength. No, we Christians fall to our knees to beg Christ that we would remember that he has already won and works for our Good. Did you just break up with your boyfriend of 3 years? Hope allows us to trust that God may have a better plan despite the agony. Did your business partner just cheat you out of the credit you deserved at work? Hope allows us to remember that God deals with each according to his pleasure. Did you just find out that your unborn child may have some mental-health complications? Hope inspires us to trust in Jesus’ promise that the lowest on Earth will be the greatest in the Kingdom.  Hope brings faith into the realm of the concrete and allows us to see that God is present in the fact that your perpetually-shrieking two-year-old can now shriek the Hail Mary from time to time.

On the day of his martyrdom St. Polycarp’s of Smyrna did not “dig deep” to find the power in himself. He had spent a whole life begging for and receiving the virtue of hope. He did not desire to hold off his impending burning because he knew that, in comparison to the everlasting joy of the Kingdom his master had prepared for him, such silly things seemed only an inconvenience. The richness of his example does not stem from his witty retorts to the proconsul. It resides in the levity with which he approaches his death. Such levity can only be buoyed by the virtue of Hope.

Let us beg God that we may hope, not just in times of difficulty but in times of Joy, that it would joyfully compel us to continue with The Ol’ Catholic Try.