Though this year it’s trumped by a Sunday, today’s memorial is certainly one of the strangest items on the Church’s calendar. It is the feast of a martyr pope and a martyr antipope — a third-century hero of unity and his schismatic counterpart — Pontian and Hippolytus. Now, sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, based in part on the discussions in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, supplemented a bit by the works of Gregory Dix and Burton Scott Easton.
Hippolytus was a priest of the Church of Rome at the beginning of the third century. According to a late but plausible account, he was a student of St. Irenaeus. Quite early, he became a teacher himself. It is likely that Origen heard him when the famous Alexandrian made his pilgrimage to Rome around 212-215. Hippolytus came into conflict with Pope Zephyrinus (reigned 198-217) — and with the majority of the Church of Rome — during the doctrinal controversies of his age. There was, at the time, a variety of aberrant notions circulating about the Trinity. Most of them emphasized the unity of God too one-sidedly and held that the “Father” and “Son” were merely different manifestations (or modes) of the one Divine Nature. Thus, these heresies are often lumped together under the category “modalism.”
Against these men, Hippolytus stood uncompromisingly for a real difference between the Son and the Father. But in his language he tended to overcorrect his opponents’ errors, and so his own doctrine seemed to represent the Son as a Divine Person almost completely separate from God (the error of ditheism) and also utterly subordinate to the Father (subordinationism). What really got Hippolytus in trouble, however, was his impatience. Pope Zephyrinus declined to render a swift decision on the trinitarian controversies, and this infuriated Hippolytus, who gravely censured the pontiff and called him incompetent — unworthy to rule the Church of Rome. He went on to say that Zephyrinus was really nothing but a tool in the hands of the ambitious and intriguing deacon Callistus.
Well, guess who was elected pope upon the death of Zephyrinus? That’s right: Callistus. (He’s SAINT Callistus to you and me — though not, just then, to Hippolytus.)
Hippolytus immediately left the communion of the Roman Church and had himself elected antipope by his small band of followers. These he called “the Catholic Church” and himself successor to the Apostles, terming the great majority of Roman Christians the “School of Callistus.” By more than a millennium and a half, he anticipated the British comedians who recounted the Anglican schism as the time when “the Pope and all his minions seceded from the Church of England.”
Hippolytus railed against Callistus and the two subsequent popes, Urban and Pontian, accusing them all of laxity in the discipline of sinners and heretics. Meanwhile, he tended his defiant little “true church” — and wrote great works of biblical commentary, liturgical scholarship, and theology. His Apostolic Tradition was enormously influential in the Catholic liturgical movement of the 20th century; it is the source of the second Eucharistic Prayer, promulgated after the Second Vatican Council.
As such a brilliant and imposing public figure, Hippolytus must have been an easy target during the persecutions that brought down one legitimate pope after another. It says something about the legitimacy of all those men that they were martyred while their contender was not.
At length, though, Hippolytus was indeed arrested, tried, and banished to the unhealthful island of Sardinia. Providentially, he was sent away at the same time and to the same place as Pope Pontian. Shortly before this, or soon afterward, the wayward would-be pope became reconciled with the legitimate bishop and Church of Rome.
After both exiles had died on the island of Sardinia, their mortal remains were brought back to Rome on the same day, August 13, probably in the year 236. And they were laid to rest, aptly enough, in the Catacomb of St. Callistus!
Hippolytus is fascinating because of his eccentricity. But we mustn’t neglect his erstwhile opponent, with whom he shares a grave and a feast day. Pontian was made pope July 21, 230, and reigned until 235. He played an important role in the early controversies surrounding Origen of Alexandria. Pontian upheld the decisions of the Egyptian bishops against Origen. In 235, the emperor Maximinus the Thracian began one of Rome’s periodic persecutions directed chiefly against the heads of the Church. One of its first victims was Pontian. In 1909 the original epitaph was found in the crypt of St. Cecilia, near the papal crypt. The epitaph, agreeing with the other known epitaphs of the papal crypt, reads: PONTIANOS, EPISK. MARTUR (Pontianus, Bishop, Martyr).