Saint Callistus, Pope, Martyr

October 14

Today is the feast day of Saint Callistus.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Callistus’ contemporary, Julius Africanus, gives the date of his accession as the first (or second?) year of Elagabalus, i.e., 218 or 219. Eusebius and the Liberian catalogue agree in giving him five years of episcopate.  Saint Callistus went from slave to freedman to moneylender to convict to church administrator to pope and then to being denounced by an antipope. (2)

He was a sign of contradiction. In his own time, Christians ranged either around him or against him. The trouble excited merely by his name more than 1600 years previously, was renewed in the middle of the 19th century by the discovery of a famous book, which gave an occasion to the heretics of that time to stand with those of old against St. Callistus and the true Catholic Church. The book, entitled Philosophumena or “refutation of heresies,” was composed in the 3rd century; it represented Callistus, whose life and character were painted in the darkest colors, as one of the worst corruptors of doctrine.

In that 3rd century, however, the author of the Philosophumena, attacking the Pontiff he wished to supplant, and setting up in Rome, as he himself acknowledges, Chair against Chair, did but publish to the Church his own shame, by ranging himself among those very dissenters of whom his book professed to be the refutation and the history. The name of this first antipope has not come down to us (but is believed to be Hippolytus). But behold his punishment! The work of his envious pen, despised by his contemporaries, was to reappear at the right moment to awaken the slumbering attention of a far-off posterity.

The impartial criticism of later ages, setting aside the insinuations, took up the facts brought forward by the accuser; and with the aid of science, disentangling the truth from among his falsehoods, rendered the most unexpected testimony to his hated rival. Thus once more “iniquity lied to itself” (Ps. 26; 12); and this word of today’s Gospel was verified: “Nothing is covered that shall not be revealed; nor hid that shall not be known” (Matt. 10: 26).

Let us listen to the greatest of Christian archaeologists, whose mind, so sure and so reserved, was overcome with enthusiasm on finding so much light springing from such a source. “All this,” said the Commandant de Rossi on studying the odious document, “gives me clearly to understand why the accuser said ironically of St. Callistus that he was reputed most admirable; why, though all knowledge of his acts was lost, his name has come down to us with such great veneration; and lastly, why, in the 3rd and 4th centuries when the memory of his government was still fresh, he was honored more than any of his predecessors, or of his successors, since the ages of persecution.

Callistus ruled the Church when She was at the term of the first stage in Her career, and was marching forward to new and greater triumphs. The Christian Faith, hitherto embraced only by individuals, had then become the Faith of families; and fathers made profession of it in their own and their children’s name. These families already formed almost the majority in every town; the religion of Christ was on the eve of becoming the public religion of the nation and the empire. How many new problems concerning Christian social rights, ecclesiastical law, and moral discipline, must have daily arisen in the Church, considering the greatness of Her situation at the time, and the still greater future that was opening before Her!

St. Callistus solved all these doubts; he drew up regulations concerning the deposition of clerics; took the necessary measures against the deterring of catechumens from Baptism, and of sinners from repentance; and defined the concept of the Church, which St. Augustine was afterwards to develop. In opposition to the civil laws, he asserted the Christian’s right over his own conscience, and the Church’s authority with regard to the marriage of the faithful. He knew no distinction of slave and freeman, great and lowly, noble and plebeian, in that spiritual brotherhood that was undermining Roman society, and softening its inhuman manners. For this reason, his name is so great at the present day; for this reason, the voice of the envious, or of those who measured the times by the narrowness of their own proud mind, was lost in the cries of admiration, and was utterly despised.”

We have already seen how, when the virgin martyr Caecilia yielded to the Popes the place of her first sepulture, St. Callistus, then deacon of Pope Zephyrinus, arranged the catacomb of the Caecilii for its new destiny. Venerable crypt, in which the State for the first time recognized the Church’s right to earthly possessions; sanctuary, no less than necropolis, wherein, before the triumph of the Cross, Christian Rome laid up Her treasures for the resurrection day! Our great martyr-Pontiff was deemed the most worthy to give his name to this the principal cemetery, although Providence had disposed that he should never rest in it.

Under the benevolent reign of Alexander Severus, he met his death in the Trastevere, in a sedition raised against him by the pagans. The cause of the tumult appears to have been his having obtained possession of the famous Taberna meritoria, from the floor of which, in the days of Augustus, a fountain of oil had sprung up and had flowed for a whole day. The Pontiff built a church on the spot, and dedicated it to the Mother of God; it is the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Its ownership was contended for; and the case was referred to the emperor, who decided in favor of the Christians.

We may attribute to the vengeance of his adversaries the Saint’s violent death, which took place close to the edifice his firmness had secured to the Church. The mob threw him into a well, which is still to be seen in the church of St. Callistus, a few paces from St. Mary’s basilica. For fear of the sedition, the martyr’s body was not carried to the Appian Way; but was laid in a cemetery already opened on the Aurelian Way, where his tomb originated a new historic center of subterranean Rome.

The Divine Office gives this brief history of the Saint:

Callistus, a Roman by birth, ruled the Church in the time of the emperor Antoninus Heliogabalus. He instituted the Ember days, on which four times in the year, fasting, according to the apostolic tradition, should be observed by all. He built the basilica of Saint Mary across the Tiber; and enlarged the cemetery on the Appian Way, in which many holy Pontiffs and martyrs were buried; hence this cemetery is called by his name.

The body of the blessed Calepodius, priest and martyr, having been thrown into the Tiber, Pope Callistus in his piety caused it to be diligently sought for, and when found to be honorably buried. He baptized Ss. Palmatius, Simplicius, Felix and Blanda, the first of whom was of consular and the others of senatorial rank; and who all afterwards suffered martyrdom. For this he was cast into prison, where he miraculously cured a soldier named Privatus, who was covered with ulcers; whom he also won over to Christ. Though so recently converted, St. Privatus died for the Faith, being beaten to death with scourges tipped with lead.

St. Callistus was Pope five years, one month, and twelve days. He held five ordinations in the month of December, wherein he made 16 priests, 4 deacons, and 8 bishops. He was tortured for a long while by starvation and finally, by being thrown headlong into a well, was crowned with martyrdom under the emperor Alexander. His body was carried to the cemetery of Calepodius, on the Aurelian Way, three miles from Rome, on the day before the Ides of October. It was afterwards translated into the basilica of St. Mary across the Tiber, which he himself had built, and placed under the high altar, where it is honored with great veneration. (1)

The Catacombs of St Callistus is an extraordinarily complex network of underground chambers, the burial place that stretches for miles and is accessible at Via Appia Antica 110-126, Roma. They were re-discovered in the nineteenth century by Giovanni Battista Rossi (1822-94), the father of Christian archaeology. They contain some of the most beautiful Christian art of the early Church. Callistus, however, is not buried there, but on the Via Aurelia.

Image: Northern transept of Our Lady cathedral of Reims (Marne, France), statue of Pope Callistus Ist on the Saints portal  (5)

Research by REGINA Staff


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