(Anti)Pope of the Month: St. Hippolytus of Rome

The Martyrdom of St Hippolytus, 14th-century illumination

Before you go any further, READ THIS OTHER POST OF MINE!!

Our last Pope of the Month was a while ago, in the person of St Clement of Rome (fl. AD 96). This month, the Pope of the Month returns in the person of St Hippolytus of Rome (c. 165-235). Between Clement and Hippolytus falls a series of other, less famous popes: Avaristus, Alexander I, Sixtus (Xystus) I, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius I, Anicetus, Soter, Eleutherius, Victor I, Zephyrinus, Callistus (see the Pope List at the Catholic Encyclopedia for articles on these guys).

The first interesting thing about Hippolytus is that he was bishop of Rome at the same time as Callistus. And then at the same time as Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. Now, if you know anything about the monarchical episcopacy that will have certainly developed in Rome by some point in the second century, if not by Clement’s day, you may know that one city doesn’t really get two bishops.

This is because St Hippolytus has the grand distinction of being an ‘Anti-Pope’ — a bishop in Rome set up in opposition to the bishop in Rome who was accepted in the canonical lists of popes.  He is also one of the only anti-popes of whom I know who is also a canonised saint. Well-done, St Hippolytus!

Hippolytus established himself as Anti-pope for two main reasons. First, he doubted the doctrinal purity of Pope Zephyrinus, whom he accused of modalism (the teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different modes of being for the one God — aka Oneness Pentecostalism, like the band 4 Him and T D Jakes), himself being influenced by the ‘logos’ Christology of St Justin Martyr that saw the Son as a hypostasis of his own, which is the forerunner of Nicene Christology.

However, his break with the episcopacy at Rome did not come until the papacy of Callistus, whom he felt to be too soft ethically; Callistus would allow people who had committed sins such as adultery back into the communion of the Church. Hippolytus was opposed to such laxity. This position is not as foreign as it sounds to our modern ears; it is the sort of stance taken around the same time by Tertullian in North Africa, for example.

Hippolytus was thus elected a rival bishop of Rome by the faction opposed to Callistus’ allegedly lax moral stance.

This, however, is not why he is famous.

Hippolytus is famous amongst Christians today for giving us one of the earliest extant eucharistic liturgies, which you can read online here. It is part of a document called the Apostolic Tradition from c. 215, and what it gives us is liturgical advice from the Roman church as well as recounting other practices common at the time.

To give an idea of how ancient some of the things we do on a Sunday are, here is part of the Apostolic Tradition:

The Lord be with you.
And all reply:
And with your spirit.
The bishop says:
Lift up your hearts.
The people respond:
We have them with the Lord.
The bishop says:
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
The people respond:
It is proper and just.

That could be straight from the Prayer Book or the Missal or the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom! And it is embedded in Hippolytus’ order of service for the eucharist. The rediscovery of this very ancient liturgical text has been instrumental in the reshaping of western liturgies since Vatican II, both Roman Catholic Novus Ordo and Anglican ones such as The Book of Alternative Services or Common Worship. Read the text, and if you are familiar with these modern liturgies, you’ll see what I mean.

Hippolytus gives us prayers for the blessing of gifts, such as cheese and olives, as well as the order for ordaining bishops, presbyters, and deacons, the receiving of catechumens, the order of baptism, the prayers at eventide and a host of other little services and prayers for the daily, weekly, yearly running of the church’s life of prayer and service.

We are fortunate to have such a window as this, a snapshot of the life of worship of the Church of Rome in the early third century. Few other liturgical texts are reliably older than this, although we have some scattered descriptions of Christian worship that pre-date Hippolytus.

In 235, Maximinus Thrax (r. 235-38) was Emperor of Rome. In his persecution of the Christians, he exiled the two rival bishops, Hippolytus and Pontian to Sardinia. There they were martyred. Both bodies were brought back to the City by Fabian and venerated as martyrs. Although his unwavering stance on purity led Hippolytus to break communion with the Roman Church, he died for Christ in the end and was counted as in the peace of Christ’s Church, being commemorated as a martyr for the name of Christ and a saint — a holy man — of the Church.

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The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.