Pope of the Month: St Pontian (230-235)

Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.

Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:

3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.

Later, 6.28-29:

Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.

The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.

Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.

1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.

During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.

They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.

Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.

The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.

Notes

This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.

The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.

(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.