Spirituality for Today – December 2007 – Volume 12, Issue 5

The Sixteenth Pope

Saint Callistus I

Black and white illustration of Saint CallistusPope Saint Callistus (Callixtus) I (217-222)– From being the slave of a Christian to becoming the sixteenth pope, his rise would match anything we would call attaining The American Dream. His good fortune was based on the high regard Pope Zephrynus had for him. Callistus became Pope Zephrynus's deacon holding an important administrative position concerning the clergy in Rome and the cemetery owned by the Church on the Appian Way.

Succeeding Zephrynus as pope, Callistus's reign was characterized by endless jousting with Saint Hippolytus and others over theological issues. Hippolytus accused him of following the doctrine of Modalism (In God there exists one divine Person reflecting three modes of action.), loosening qualifications for a man to enter the priesthood, and of being too lenient toward sinners. The weight of these accusations proved unjust. Regarding forgiveness of sinners, Pope Callistus, more aligned with the sentiments of Jesus, saw the Church as a place for continuously reclaiming the repentant sinner. The disdain felt by Hippolytus toward Callistus was such that Hippolytus sought the backing of a schismatic community who chose him to be pope. Thus, Hippolytus became the first antipope.

Pope Callistus is held to have initiated a practice in the Church known as Ember Days. Within the liturgical year, the Church designated a group on three days were set aside for fast and abstinence occurring four times (the word ember comes from the Latin for four times or seasons) a year. The practice has since faded.

The name of Pope Callistus is mentioned in the most ancient records of the martyrs, but this belief is open to debate. The cemetery along the Appian Way is named for him (San Callisto). One would think that he was buried there. No. He is entombed in a cemetery along the Via Aurelia.

Regrettably, nearly all that is known about Pope Callistus comes from his critics. In fairness, he may have been one of the Church's most outstanding popes.