Spirituality for Today – July 2008 – Volume 12, Issue 12

The Twenty-Third Pope

Saint Stephen I

Painting of Saint Stephen IPope St. Stephen I (254-257) – The reign of Pope Stephen may be characterized as a fight of three rounds. In one corner, Pope Stephen I and in the other corner Cyprian of Carthage.

Round One: During a time of persecution, two Spanish bishops lapsed in their faith and offered sacrifice to the pagan gods. The two remorseful bishops went before Pope Stephen in Rome and begged to he restored to the bishoprics. Stephen acceded to their plea. Their churches in Spain appealed the decision to Cyprian ho convened a local council of North African bishops. The bishops disagreed with Pope Stephen, but excused his decision because of the superficial knowledge of the case that the pope possessed.

Round Two: The bishops of Gaul (France) were up in arms regarding the views of Bishop Marcian of Arles. The bishops protested against Bishop Marcian's adoption of the antipope Novatian's rigorist view of refusing to reconcile lapsed Catholic even upon their deathbeds. They wanted Marcian deposed. Pope Stephen was not compelled to take immediate action in the case. The Gallic bishops appealed to Cyprian who urged Pope Stephen to remove Bishop Marcian and set the process in motion of electing his replacement.

Round Three: The issue was the validity of the baptisms of those who were baptized by heretics or schismatics. Cyprian and the North African churches generally favored declaring the baptisms to be invalid. Pope Stephen backed by the tradition of the Church of Rome and a number of the Eastern church communities held that the baptisms were valid and readmission into communion with the Catholic Church would require absolution and not a rebaptism. Some North African churches were coming to the side of Pope Stephen. Cyprian held another synod that confirmed the pro-rebaptism stance.

The tension regarding this issue was increasing to the point of producing a crisis in the unity of the Church. The whole matter is left to speculation. One may conclude that the fight was won by St. Cyprian by a technical knockout: St. Cyprian died a martyr a year the death of Pope Stephen.

One historical feature is the centrality of Rome as the arbiter of disputes and the primary authority in the Church.

Habemus papam