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Saint Callistus, Pope, Martyr 🗓

Pope St Callistus I (- 222). Most of what we know of Callistus comes from attacks by his contemporaries, notably Tertullian and the antipope Hippolytus.

As a young slave Callistus was put in charge of a bank by his master Carpophorus, in which the brethren and widows lodged money. Callistus lost it all, and fled. When his master caught up with his ship Callistus jumped overboard to escape capture but was saved from drowning. He was given the punishment reserved for slaves, that of turning the pistrinum or hand-mill. His creditors got him released in the hope that he could retrieve some of their money, but when he tried to get back some of the money he had lent to Jews the result was a fight for which he was re-arrested. He was denounced as a Christian and was condemned to work in the mines of Sardinia (thus, incidentally, ceasing to be the slave of Carpophorus). Marcia, a mistress of the Emperor Commodus, obtained the release of the Christians including Callistus. His health was so weakened that he was sent to Antium to recuperate and was given a pension by Pope Victor I.

Somehow, from a weakened ex-slave in receipt of a invalidity pension, Callistus rose to be archdeacon, had charge of the Roman catacomb which now bears his name, and ended up as Pope. The oppressed Church of the early third century had more important things to do than keep detailed archives of its decision-making processes, but we can be sure that Tertullian’s story that Callistus obtained influence over the ignorant, illiterate and grasping Pope Zephyrinus through bribes is just polemical fiction.

What so irritated Tertullian and Hippolytus and made them so keen to vilify Callistus is what made him such an important figure in the history of the Church. The question of what to do about repentant sinners was a matter of intense debate and dissension, and many of the violent splits in the Church of the early centuries hinged on this very point. What were you to do if someone committed a serious sin? The rigorists – we might call them the “slip once and you’re damned” school – held that once you had done such evil acts you were for ever separated from the true, the pure Church, and there was no way back. Callistus decreed that sinners – for example, fornicators and adulterers – could be readmitted to communion if they repented and did penance for their sin. Callistus based the theology of his decree on the power that Christ gave to Peter and his successors, both to bind and to loose. Tertullian and Hippolytus argued that this power had been given to Peter personally and could not be passed on, so that Callistus’ decree was an innovation, and invalid. They similarly accused him of reprehensible laxity in other matters of Church discipline.

Callistus’ gift to the Church was crucial in the arguments of the fourth century, where the Donatist schism in Africa arose precisely over the question of what should be done about those who, during the persecutions of Diocletian, had given up the sacred Scriptures to the authorities – or, conversely, about those who had flaunted their Christianity so as to attract prosecution, imprisonment, and consequently notoriety and admiration among the Christians. The calm good sense shown by orthodox bishops (sometimes patchily but ultimately successfully) has its roots in this manifestation of charity and mercy by Callistus.

Not much is known about how Callistus died. He is the earliest pope found in a fourth-century martyrology, but details are scarce. Since he lived in a time of peace under the emperor Alexander Severus, whose mother was a Christian, he may have been killed in a riot.

See the articles in the Catholic Encyclopaedia and in Wikipedia.

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