There are many lessons for us in this sad saga of division and rancor, but the one attitude we must never take away is this: “Gosh, the Church is so corrupt, let’s abandon it and start our own.” (Or worse yet, abandon faith altogether.) Never!
The point I made above about the governance of the Church holds true: Despite corrupt leaders – the divisions, the infighting, the politics, etc. – the Church is governed by the Holy Spirit and will never be ultimately overcome by either the sinfulness of men or the wiles of the devil.
In essence, we never have permission to abandon ship right when Christ’s Church needs us the most. It’s just that we don’t often see the resolution of these problems in our own lifetimes. It took over a century (1309-1417) for the Church to heal the Avignon, anti-pope fiasco. Alas!
The second lesson is simple: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
The First Anti-Pope
This insight leads us back to the difficult situation, centuries before Avignon (in the early 200s AD), when an influential priest of the Church of Rome, Hippolytus, found himself scandalized by the goings-on of the churchmen of his own day. The historical record is a bit sketchy because the events took place so long ago, but the relevant details are sufficiently clear for us to get a good idea of what transpired.
Hippolytus was a bright man, but then again, some of history’s most notorious troublemakers were also the brightest stars in the Church of their day. On the positive side, he left us certain orthodox writings that give us a precious view into the practices of the early Church. One of his works, called the Apostolic Tradition, actually catalogued the language used in the Eucharistic prayers of the time and the rituals used for the ordination of bishops. Some of his wording is used in Church liturgies to this day. Amazing.
Yet, Hippolytus was adamantly opposed to the reigning pope, Zephyrinus, who believed the Sacrament of Penance should be extended even to (repentant) murderers and adulterers who had previously been excluded from receiving absolution.
Hippolytus was the kind of purist who causes a great deal of division in church communities in every age. These types advocate a kind of “church of the elect” that wants to exclude imperfect Christians, or at least certain categories of sinners.
Just remember the old saying that if you ever want to join a church of perfect Christians, it will cease to be perfect the moment you join it. Such churches never exist in reality.
Yet, even though Hippolytus was an influential priest, his ideas did not catch on. And then there was the triggering event: Hippolytus was passed over for pope when Zephyrinus died in 217, and the Roman Church elected another guy, Calixtus, who had the same attitude toward the Sacrament of Penance as his predecessor, Zephyrinus.
That was the last straw for Hippolytus. He broke away from Roman authority over that issue and formed his own community that consecrated him as the “true pope” in opposition to what he considered to be the less-than-pure man who, in fact, legitimately occupied the throne of Peter.
The Roman Church was thus confronted with its first official anti-pope, and it wasn’t pretty. Hippolytus remained obstinately in schism with his breakaway community through the reigns of three popes: Calixtus (217-222), Urban I (222–230), and Pontian (230–235).
And do you know what eventually reunited the anti-pope Hippolytus with the real pope Pontian? Suffering.
In 235 they both got shipped off to the salt mines in Sardinia by the Roman Emperor Maximinus. It wasn’t because the emperor was trying to resolve a dispute between two wayward children either. In fact, he was aggressively persecuting Christians and tried to lop off the head of the Church by exiling her leaders. The encyclopedia Britannica calls him “a fervent pagan” and “a persistent persecutor of Christians” from the time he became emperor. The early Church went through 300 years of these types of persecutions.
Very little is known about the ordeal Pontian and Hippolytus endured in the salt mines, but what is clear is that Hippolytus renounced his schismatic campaign and the two men actually reconciled right there – in the salt mines of Sardinia!
Furthermore, in the midst of their common suffering, the two men gave a final and quite amazing testimony to Church unity. Hippolytus urged his followers to be reconciled with the community of Rome, and Pontian resigned the papacy voluntarily so that the Church could elect another pope and would not be deprived of a father to guide them through the persecution. Both men died in the year 235, probably of harsh treatment rather than execution. Still, they clearly died for their faith.
To this day – 1800 years after the fact – the Church celebrates the Feast of Sts. Pontian and Hippolytus together on the universal calendar on August 13th. Pope and anti-pope! Wow.
They were imperfect men, yes, but also glorious martyrs of Church unity. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” And perhaps an even more relevant Gospel truth echoed by these men: “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” Indeed.
[Note: This article is a reproduction of the Sacred Windows Email Newsletter of 2/19/23, so it does not end with the regular Soul Work section. Please visit our Newsletter Archives.]
Photo Credits: The Papal Palace at Avignon, France. (Wikimedia, Jean-Marc Rosier); Holy Spirit Window by Dnalor 01 via Wikimedia Commons; images of Hippolytus, Pontian, and Catherine of Siena in the public domain.