Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
His successor was Victor, a strong willed man who did
not hesitate to strike with the drastic weapon of excommunication when he deemed it necessary. He rightly pronounced this awful sentence against the apostate and schismatic Theodotus, and indeed he almost gave the same penalty to the entire Eastern Church over a dispute based on the old argument of the Easter date. However, Irenaeus, a Syrian theologian who became Bishop of Lyons in France, persuaded him to reconsider this action. Thus peace was made, with the Eastern bishops resolutely keeping to their own customs. Victor died in 199 and the third century of Christianity dawned with Zephyrinus, a Roman of humble birth, as Pope. He was kind to sinners and generous to the poor but possessing little education he sought the advice in many matters of his friend, the deacon and ex-slave, Callistus. For this he was bitterly criticized by such writers as Tertullian and the scholar-priest Hippolytus, both of whom at this period fell into heresy, becoming adherents of the harshly ascetic doctrine of Montanism. Their outcries fortunately did not serve to prevent the election of Callistus after the death of Zephyrinus in 217. Able qualities of leadership soon justified the confidence of his friend and the decision of those who had chosen him. However, Hippolytus whose undeniable brilliance had won him a considerable following declared the election to have been false and then allowed his own disciples to bestow upon him the title of Head of the true Church. Thus for the first time we have an Anti-Pope. No salvo of excommunications from Callistus however followed this announcement. Indeed unlike some of his contemporaries who, immersed in the interpretation of the Gospel, were apt to forget the essence of Christian teachings, the Pope in this and many other matters exhibited a charity worthy of his office. He changed and modified the harsh penitential system and in one radical edict made known that adulterers,
providing their remorse was sincere, were not to be refused absolution. This gesture of mercy drew the wrath of certain righteous doctors who had forgotten the famous admonition to those who would stone the Magdalen. "Where shall we post up this generous concession," asked the irate Tertullian, "on the doors of brothels?"
The pretensions of Hippolytus persisted after the death of Callistus, throughout the pontificate of Urban (222-230), and into that of Pontian. For the first five years of this Pope's reign the struggle was bitter and grave for Hippolytus was a dangerously skilled antagonist. Then in a fresh outburst of persecution by an Emperor who took no trouble to differentiate between true or schismatic Christianity, both were banished to the Sardinian mines. In the stultifying confines of imprisonment antipathies are usually intensified into deadly hatred: less commonly a friendship is formed strong with understanding and loyalty. Happily it was the latter case with Pope and Anti-Pope. Hippolytus acknowledged his error and made a complete and unconditional submission to Pontian who without rancor received him back into the Church. Soon after, this new friendship was sealed with the bond of dual martyrdom.
When Pontian had been seized he had resigned his office and elected in his stead was Anterus who, however, died a few months later. The next Pope was Fabian and he proved himself to be a capable executive, directing the Church through times that were turbulent not only for his co-religionists but for all under Roman rule. The barbarity of the peasant-born Emperor Maximin had thrown the Empire into excesses of disorder that were to endure for many reigns. Murder now seemed to be the usual instrument of accession to the honors of the purple and it was by this decidedly un-Christian method that Philip, sometimes known as the first Christian Emperor, achieved
the Imperial station. Little is known of his conversion but once on the throne he seems to have been suitably remorseful of his former violences. In his reign and for the first time official tolerance was accorded Christians and to Pope Fabian was granted the right for ecclesiastical authorities to possess properties.
But the unfamiliar tranquillity was not to endure for long. In 249 Philip was dispossessed of his rank in the same bloody manner in which it had been acquired. Decius, his erstwhile lieutenant, was now hailed by the Legions, savage in their passions and so fickle in their loyalties, as Emperor. He was a man of severe nature who sincerely believed the salvation of the State could be only achieved by return to the pagan standards of ancient Rome and his temper towards the Church was quickly manifested in an edict which declared that death was to be the penalty for all who would not forsake Christianity. This savage decree was a challenge quickly accepted by Fabian who made gallant answer with his life. Nor did he die alone. With splendid celerity there was a rush of martyrs worthy of his heroic example. But this time too there were also found many who in the terror of the moment denied their faith. The easy years of non-persecution had produced "easy" Christians who preferred to live with the accusations of their consciences rather than to die before the sentences of the judges.
The Church was a public enough organization by now for Decius to have a thorough knowledge of its means of government. Without a Pope, he reasoned, the Christians would be without a centralized authority and so eventually would be bound to dissolve as an organized society. He set himself to prevent a new election after Fabian's execution and so vigilant were his officers that for a year the scheme was successful. But though no Pope was elected the
administration of the Church went on uninterruptedly in the persons of a Council of Presbyters who in defiance of the Emperor met and dwelt secretly in Rome. To this regency there came one Novatus from Africa with accusations of apostasy against the powerful Bishop of Carthage. This was Cyprian who, better to direct his clergy, had justifiably taken refuge from the civil power. Novatus had no success with the Council but he did find an ally in the clever but too ambitious priest Novatian who, as later events proved, harbored designs on the papacy.
Meanwhile there were problems other than the Christians to employ the attention of the Emperor. For the first time of any importance the Goths invaded the Empire and the Emperor was summoned to the Danube to head his soldiery. His absence from Rome was the signal for a papal election where the honor fell to the gentle-mannered Cornelius, a Roman of aristocratic antecedents. Quite naturally this choice found no favour with the envious Novatian who, embittered by his own lack of success, soon fell into schism, declaring loudly that Cornelius was at error in permitting penitent apostates to be granted forgiveness. As this was a question widely discussed in the Church at that time Cornelius with some wisdom called upon sixty bishops to journey to Rome and form a Council. This was in the autumn of 251 and the result was the condemnation of Novatian's propaganda, and the excommunication of him and his followers.
The net of the persecution now tightened around Pope Cornelius and he was sentenced to banishment and then, while still in exile, put to death. Lucius, named as his successor, was promptly sent to exile also. But instead of being executed he was ordered back to Rome at the direct command of a new Emperor, Valerian, the second successor of Decius. This ruler at first exhibited every sign
of being tolerant and conciliatory. The Pope on his return was astonished to find openly professing members of his flock in favor at the Imperial Court and there were other evidences of official magnanimity to warm his heart. To the happy Pontiff, so recently a prisoner, it seemed as though a new era had commenced and he was never to suffer disillusionment for that same year, just twelve months after his election, he passed away peacefully; a death rare enough to merit mention in the history of the earlier Popes. He was followed by Stephen who, apparently anxious that no incident should stir Pagan ire and so start the persecutions again, cautioned that the clergy should not wear ecclesiastical vestments, except inside the churches. A long argument with the Bishop of Carthage concerning the validity of baptism by heretics then engaged his attention. Stephen, who affirmed such baptisms as valid, finally made public throughout the Church a definite ruling on the subject which served to draw several other bishops into the fray. This altercation lasted three years and was interrupted, although not settled, by an alarming change in Valerian's attitude.
For the first time in history a Prince became suspicious and envious of the Church's material wealth. The moment was propitious. Disorder at the frontiers and a series of internal confusions had reduced the Imperial coffers to a near-emptyness. The growing strength of the Church, the increasing importance of the bishops, presented a target too conspicuous to escape the envy of a perturbed Emperor. Readily he listened to the calumnies and advice of an anti-Christian member of his court and soon there came an edict. Gatherings of Christians were forbidden and the bishops and clergy were ordered, under pain of death or exile, to render sacrifice to the Pagan gods. There followed the same brave sad sequel of the previous persecutions. The
[paragraph continues] Pope perished in exile and a new crop of martyrs was made.
Terribly certain of martyrdom was he who would be chosen to head the faithful at such a hazardous time. Sixtus II courageously accepted the fatal honour and soon after was beheaded upon his own throne. The lot of his successor, Dionysius, was happier for once again an invasion of the Empire providentially caused a cessation of the persecution. The alarmed Valerian marched to a campaign which was to mean his defeat, his capture, and his death. To him came the most ignominious end that was to befall a Roman ruler. During his imprisonment he was used by his Persian conqueror as a human stool upon which to step to the saddle and after his death in these shameful circumstances his corpse was stuffed with straw and publicly exhibited as a trophy of his defeat. These formidable insults to the purple and to the prestige of Rome were lightly borne by his son, Gallienus, who in fact lost no time in changing the policies of his father, including, happily, the laws against the Christians. Nor for them was this change the mere benignity of a tolerant mind. Active restitutions for past damages were made, full privileges of citizenship were granted, and Church property was restored.
Again it seemed as though the clouds of persecution had been permanently relegated to the past, and with the horizon of the future clear, the jubilant pontiff was now able to devote full energies to the internal affairs of the Church. During his lifetime the happy relationship of State and Church continued to exist and at his death (in 268) he left it as a legacy which was to prevail until near the close of the century, throughout the pontificates of his next three successors, who were respectively Felix, Eutychian and Caius. These Popes successfully carried on the tradition of good administration. There was much to do, for the
faith was spreading rapidly. Heresies were abundant but were met with wise discipline, and orthodoxy was protected. Bishoprics grew, both in numbers and size, and certain powers of authority were delegated to higher bishops who were termed Metropolitans. The Papal position did not suffer by these necessary acts of administration. On the contrary during this period the primacy of the Apostolic See was becoming a more accomplished and more regulated fact than ever before. As the age of concealment passed the dark caverns of the catacombs ceased to provide the only chapels for Rome. Churches were built, and splendidly, everywhere. The Church had finally emerged as a recognized and united Society, with too numerous and powerful a membership to invite, so many thought, aggressive restrictions again.