By Steve Weidenkopf
Today the Church celebrates the memorial of Sts. Hippolytus (170-235) and Pontian (r. 230-235)—a most interesting pair of early Christian men who were at first enemies but now share eternal glory.
In its first several centuries, the Church dealt with crises both external and internal. Externally, the Church suffered for nearly 250 years under the violent persecutions of Roman emperors, begun under mad Nero in A.D. 64 and finally stopped under Constantine in 313. Internally, the Church wrestled with heresies, schism, and matters of discipline. One of the main issues of disagreement in those early centuries concerned the treatment of the faithful who committed serious sins or who apostatized during the persecutions. Two camps emerged within the Church: those who advocated mercy for the fallen, and those—called “rigorists”—who advocated harsh penalties or even permanent exclusion of the fallen.
St. Hippolytus’s date of birth is not known, and only fragmentary data exists about his early life. It is known that he was a brilliant and gifted theologian and is considered a Church Father. He wrote treatises against several of the heresies afflicting the Church in the late second and early third centuries—most of them Trinitarian or Christological, as early Christians sometimes struggled to discern the correct terminology to apply to the apostolic teaching that Jesus was true God and true man.
Hippolytus did not suffer from indecision, and he looked to the Roman pontiff to make a quick and authoritative decision concerning the heresy known as Modalism (and other names, including Sabellianism). A Modalist blurred the disctinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, positing that these were just different “modes” of one divine person. (To a Modalist, od the Father appeared on earth in the mode of the Son.) Hippolytus wanted Pope Zephyrinus (r. 198-217) to rebuke and condemn the Modalists, and grew upset when he failed to do so. When Callistus I (r. 217-222) succeeded Zephyrinus, Hippolytus was so angered by the election of Callistus that he decided to embark on a path that would impact the Church throughout its history. He claimed that Callistus was unworthy of the office due to his embattled past (as a young slave, some believed, he had embezzled his master’s money), and gathered a group of followers who elected him pope. In so doing Hippolytus opened the door to the concept of the antipope, which would rear its ugly head throughout Church history but most devastatingly during the Great Western Schism of the fourteenth century.
Hippolytus’s schism lasted for nineteen years and through three pontificates. As a rigorist who did not believe that serious sinners should be re-admitted to communion in the Church, he refused to accept the more-merciful approach of Callistus and his successors. But Hippolytus would soon have cause to soften his stance and even re-evaluate his own separation from communion.
In 235 a career soldier named Maximinus Thrax was proclaimed emperor by the legions in Germany. Shortly afterwards, he turned his attention to the Church and a persecution erupted that targeted the clergy. The reigning pope, St. Pontian, and the “anti-pope” Hippolytus, were arrested and sent to the mines on the island of Sardinia. Amidst the suffering and hardship of the mines, Hippolytus renounced his schism and papal claim and was reconciled to the Church by Pontian. Both men later succumbed to the harsh conditions, and their remains were transported for burial in Rome, where they were recognized as martyrs and saints of the Church.
Hippolytus is accorded special recognition in Church history: Not only is he the first antipope but he is also the only antipope ever canonized! His unique case provides an example of repentence and reconcilation for those who have separated themselves from the Church.