Today we commemorate St. Callistus, Bishop and Martyr. He was one of the early bishops of Rome (217-222 AD), but an unlikely one. He had been a slave, and basically everything we know about him comes from the writings of St. Hippolytus, who wanted to be pope in Callistus’s place and wrote to explain why Callistus should not be bishop of Rome. He wrote that Callistus was bad with his master’s money and so fled from his master before eventually ending up in Rome.
There he became aquatinted with Pope Zephyrinus, who was not much of a theologian. He would make statements which were orthodox one day and contradicting heretical ones the next. But Callistus had a knack for theology and guided the pope in condemning the heresy of Sabellius; and eventually he became Zephrinus’s successor.
Hippolytus’s main issue with Callistus was that he was too lax in his governance of the Church. Callistus readmitted people into the Church who had committed grave sins by letting them perform public penances, whereas Hippolytus didn’t believe they should be given a second chance; and Callistus allowed Christians to marry across classes, slave and free, whereas Hippolytus was more class-conscious. So Callistus’s saintliness was mainly manifested in showing God’s mercy and acceptance.
It’s funny how two opponents could both become canonized saints, but it was the same way with St. Hilda and St. Wilfred (who we commemorated two days ago), with Hilda supporting the Celtic way and Wilfred the Roman, at the Synod of Whitby.
And a note on Hippolytus: If you’re familiar with the Episcopalian’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, their most-used Canon of the Mass, Eucharistic Prayer A, comes from the writings of Hippolytus. So he was helpful in giving us writings to understand the early Church.
While Zephyrinus was pope, he entrusted care of the burial chambers along the Appian way to Callistus, and for that reason, Callistus is considered the patron of cemetery workers.
In our NT lesson at Morning Prayer today, James talked about not being a respecter of persons. St. Callistus showed in his papacy how God is not a respecter of persons, because just as Callistus welcomed back the wayward and allowed people to marry across classes, so God allowed a prodigal slave to become pope, and he gives us second-chances and opportunities to become saints as well and gave himself as a husband to us while we were yet in bondage.