The Adventures of Callistus I, The Pope Who Did Hard Time

Callistus I (pope from 217-222) didn’t have it easy. He was a slave who lost all the money entrusted to him, ran away and was caught, was sentenced to hard labor for starting a fight, faced harsh criticism from some of the leading minds of the early church, endured a schism, and, to top it all off, saw his story written by one of his bitterest enemies. This makes it difficult to tell where fact and fiction part company with the sixteenth pope, particularly since the Acts of Callistus used for subsequent biographies is apocryphal, but enough has come down to us to suggest Callistus was more sinned against than sinning.

The future pope was the slave of a Christian named Carpophorus, who made him responsible for managing the wealth and alms of the Christian community. Some accounts have him starting a bank to handle the money, and then losing it all through incompetence or mismanagement. (Even his enemies suggest only “pecuniary difficulties” rather than theft.) With Carpophorus demanding an accounting, Callistus hopped on the first ship in port, intending to go wherever it took him. The ship was slow to leave, however, and as his master closed in, Callistus jumped overboard, only to be fished out by the sailors and returned to Rome in his master’s keeping.

The depositors asked for Callistus to be freed in the hopes that he could somehow recover their money, and this was done. Accounts vary as to what happened next. In Refutation of All Heresies, his foe Hippolytus of Rome claims (improbably) that Callistus attempted suicide by mob by creating a disturbance in the local synagogue as the Jews were gathering for Sabbath. Subsequence historians suggest that the deposits had been lost in some dealings with Jewish bankers, and this was an attempt to gain restitution. Whatever the truth of the matter, punches were thrown, a minor riot ensued, and the future pope was hauled before the prefect. It’s interesting to note that he was charged with preventing the Jews from worshipping freely (a right they were promised under Roman law) as well as creating a disturbance.

Callistus was flogged and sentenced to hard labor in the mines of Sardinia, which was a major source of silver for the empire.  This was a death sentence given the harsh conditions, yet he would spend only a year there.

At the time, Victor I was the pope, and a Christian concubine of the Emperor Commodus* approached him desiring to do a good deed. He suggested that she ask the Emperor to free the Christians sentenced to the silver mines, and provided a list for the purpose. Interestingly, Callistus was deliberately left off the list by the pope. When the governor brought the news that the Christians would be freed, Callistus managed to plead his case and was released along with them. He returned to Rome a free man, and even managed to wangle a pension from Victor.

At some point, his prospects improved, he was made a deacon, and he became a close ally of the next pope, Zephyrinus. Again, Hippolytus strains credibility by suggesting bribes and flattery were key to restoring the fortunes of Callistus, painting Zephyrinus as corrupt, ignorant, and naive, with the scheming Callistus the true power behind the throne. There’s no question that Callistus was an important figure in the church, and he was put in charge of the cemetery and catacombs in Rome that bear his name (although he is not buried there).

The emerging controversies of the 3rd century were Christological, and debates were leading to charges of heresy on all sides. Some of the problems were partly linguistic. Hippolytus, Tertullian, and others were developing a sophisticated language for understanding the trinity. The sword of theology is sharpened in the whetstone of heresy, and debate (often fractious) was key to developing doctrine. Meanwhile, their less academic co-religionists were trying to keep the community united while also putting down actual heresies.

Adoptionism (the idea that Jesus was merely human until his baptism) and Sabellianism (or modalism, the idea that God is one and the trinity is merely three different modes of acting rather than three persons) were problems, and critics didn’t think Zephyrinus was moving strongly enough against their proponents. Hippolytus went so far as to accuse the pope himself of being a modalist, although it’s clear that he was not. The popes, on the other hand, regarded Hippolytus and others as ditheists, possibly because they failed to fully grasp the language of hypostasis. It’s quite obvious that Callistus was no modalist: he’s the pope who excommunicated Sabellius in 220AD.

The breaking point would come over the next years as Callistus succeeded Zephyrinus as pope in 217. Eager to unite the Christian community, he allowed readmission to communion (following penance and absolution) for Christians who had committed acts of apostasy, blasphemy, murder, adultery, fornication, fraud, and idolatry. Rigorists like Tertullian and Hippolytus were outraged that such sinners would be reconciled to the church. These arguments seem surprising to us now, but in the early centuries the notion of a church that included struggling and forgiven sinners along with saints had not yet taken hold, and rigorists could plausibly argue that the pope’s mercy was not merely a scandal, but heretical.

So outraged were the rigorists that they created one of the earliest schisms in the Church. Hippolytus of Rome, one of the leading Latin theologians of the age, was elected by his followers as an alternate bishop of Rome, thus becoming the first antipope. The division outlasted Callixtus, who died in a riot in 222. (The martyrology which has him being cast into a well by authorities is now considered false.) Hippolytus would remain an antipope until 235, when both he and Pope Pontian were deported to Sardinia in a fresh round of persecution by the new emperor, Maximinus Thrax.

Knowing that that the Sardinian mines were a death sentence, Pontian abdicated, becoming the first pope to do so. Hippolytus and Pontian are believed to have reconciled before both died in the harsh conditions of their imprisonment. Their disputes long behind us, Victor, Zephrynus, Callistus, Pontian, and Hippolytus are now all considered saints.


Image: Statue of Pope Callixtus I, Cathedral of Reims (Wikimedia Commons)

*Commodus is better know to movie-goers as the emperor of the film Gladiator.