An unlikely holy pope – for our times

Today’s saint, Callistus I, who was pope from 217 to 222, is an unlikely saint, not one I would normally write about or pray to. Yet, he might be a very good saint to consider in these days of the Synod on the Family being held in the Vatican.

Callistus was a Christian slave who was given charge of some financial matters by his Christian master. Either through mismanagement or questionable practices, the business failed. Either he fled or was sent to the Sardinian salt mines for his malfeasance. Another story has him sent to the mines for a brawl in a synagogue. Not a very savory person.

While in Sardinia, Marcia, a Christian concubine of the emperor managed to get some Christians released from captivity. Callistus was not on the list that Pope Victor had given her but he persuaded the authorities to release him.

The pope then sent Callistus to a town outside Rome, but the following Pope, Zephyrinus, brought him back to Rome, ordained him a deacon, and put him in charge of one of the cemeteries.

When Zephyrinus died, Callistus was elected pope – but not without controversy.

A certain priest named Hippolytus had opposed Pope Zephyrinus, charging him with being lax. He thus opposed the election of Callistus and had himself elected bishop of Rome – the first anti-pope.

Hippolytus was a rigorist seeing the Church as “the ark of saints,” as Robert Ellsberg puts it in All Saints. Pope Callistus, however, saw the Church as “the loving home for saints and sinners alike.”

According to Paul Burns, in Butler’s Lives of the Saints: New Concise Edition,

[Callistus] readmitted previously married persons to the sacraments, upheld the validity of marriages between citizens and slaves (against Roman law)…, and declared that the Church had the power to remit all sins, even murder and adultery, so could be merciful to the gravest sinners.

Callistus, however, always treated Hippolytus with respect.

Thanks to the grace of God, Hippolytus was reconciled to the papacy after Callistus’ death and died a martyr’s death on the island of Sardinia about 236. He is the only anti-pope recognized as a saint.

Sta Maria in TrastevereCallistus’s death is subject to dispute. The legend is that, in the midst of a riot against Christians, he was thrown from his home in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome and drowned in a well. His image is to the left of Mary in the apse mosaic of the church of Santa Maria en Trastevere, perhaps on the site where he lived.

In the midst of the controversies raised by the Synod on the Family, it is helpful to remember the long history of the centrality of mercy.

In Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread, the Reflection is taken from Dialogue 30 of Saint Catherine of Siena:

By your mercy we were created. And by your mercy we were created anew in your Son’s blood. It is your mercy that preserves us…. O mercy! My heart is engulfed with the thought of you! For wherever I turn my thoughts I find nothing but mercy!

May the mercy of our Lord guide us and the Church as we seek to strengthen families and the bonds of love between God’s people.

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