Feast Day: 13 August
Today’s martyrs died on the island of Sardinia, perhaps from overwork in the mines or perhaps from starvation or neglect rather than execution. In a pacific interlude following the persecution which was their doom, a later pope, Fabian, returned their bodies to Rome for dignified burial. Pontian was interred in the papal crypt in the Catacombs of Callixtus near so many of his fellow popes of the 200s. In 1909 the original marble epitaph on Pontian’s tomb was found among the shards littering the floor of the catacombs. It reads ΠONTIANOC ƐΠIC MPT (Pontian, Bishop, Martyr), although the abbreviation for “martyr” was engraved by a different hand. Tombstones are very economical. Hippolytus was buried in a Roman catacomb, subsequently named in his honor, which became a pilgrimage site. The links among today’s martyrs are their common date of burial, 13 August, and their place of death.
Pope Saint Pontian was consecrated Bishop of Rome in 230. He is chiefly known for convening a Roman Synod which confirmed a prior condemnation of the Egyptian theologian Origen. Like so many other bishops of his era, Pontian also dealt with divergent positions over how the Church should re-integrate Christians who had abjured their faith during a persecution. Should they be re-baptised, do public penance, or be welcomed back privately? Tensions over this issue lasted for many decades and deeply wounded Church unity. During a persecution, Pontian was exiled, but first graciously resigned in 235 so that a successor pope could be elected. For this magnanimous act, he was remembered as “distinguished” in contemporary documents.
St Hippolytus is an elusive figure. He was most likely from Rome. Some traditions, however, state he was from Lyon and was a disciple of St Irenaeus. Incredibly for a saint, Hippolytus is also traditionally labelled an anti-pope for resisting Pope Callixtus’ lenient attitude in reintegrating to Church life the lapsi who had rendered homage to false gods. Hippolytus was later reconciled to the Church which he loved enough to disrupt. Besides being a controversialist, Hippolytus was the most impactful theologian in Rome before the legalisation of Christianity. When the great theologian Origen came to Rome from Casarea, he heard Hippolytus preach. Most of Hippolytus’ works have been lost, but enough translated fragments of his original Greek writings survive to capture his importance. He wrote on Scripture, dogma, law, apologetics, Christ, and also authored a comprehensive polemical work entitled A Refutation of All Heresies.
Hippolytus is most famous as the author of the Apostolic Tradition, which preserves some of the most ancient liturgical texts of the primitive church. The original of the Apostolic Tradition does not exist, and later translated fragments are of dubious provenance, making the work a fluid, composite text of different eras. Nevertheless, the core document is a one-of-a-kind artefact, allowing a modern Christian to peek through the keyhole into the liturgy of the early, praying Church. Hippolytus doesn’t just describe the words and actions of the liturgy, as the earlier Didache and Saint Justin Martyr did. Instead, he writes down the actual prayers. The Apostolic Tradition contains the earliest known rite of ordination. The ordination rite of a bishop used today by the Catholic Church still largely adopts this ancient text. Hippolytus provides the first example of the Virgin Mary being invoked in liturgical prayer. And Hippolytus’ prayers for the Eucharistic banquet include the third century words of consecration! This text is the source for a significant portion of today’s Eucharistic Prayer II, perhaps the most commonly used Eucharistic prayer at Mass. When the faithful throughout the world hear the familiar cadence of Eucharistic Prayer II each Sunday, they are hearing the distant echo of priestly voices from the third century.
As he did on so many significant Roman tombs, Pope Damasus (366-384) wrote an inscription on the tomb of Hippolytus more than a century after the saint died. Part of it reads: “Wherever he was able to go, he had spoken of the Catholic faith so that all might follow it. Thus our martyr deserves to be acknowledged.” Indeed. And at the entrance of the forever-closed catacombs of Saint Hippolytus, a personalized graffiti from an ancient pilgrim is carved into the wall, the tender petition invoking today ‘saint: “Hippolytus, keep Peter the sinner in mind.” Saint Hippolytus, keep all of us in mind.
Saints Hippolytus and Pontian lived at a difficult time and gave such public witness that they were exiled when many others were not. Their headship of the Church led to their demise. They were isolated, suffered want, and died as a result. May we count our own hardships little in light of theirs.