Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Homily for Pope Saint Callistus

They didn’t like him.  No, that’s not strong enough.  They dispised him.  They thought he was a heretic, that it was a mistake to elect him Pope and they went so far as to elect the first anti-pope in the history of the Church.

The irony is that what we know of Pope Saint Callistus, the martyr pope whom we commemorate today, comes down to us from his enemies, Hippolytus and Tertullian.  They had a lot against him.

First, it was his character.  They tell us that Callistus was a runaway slave had lost the monies he was in charge of for upkeep of widows and orphans, that he jumped off a prison ship, was arrested in a synagogue where he was trying to borrow the money back, and was then sent to the salts mines of Sardinia for being a Christian.  When he returned he was charged with overseeing the catacombs on the Via Appia and was eventually elected Pope.

There are probably some virtuous details missing there, by the way, but I pray that my enemies may not be the ones to write my biography.  But that’s not all.

What really infuriated them was his laxity as Pope.

Up until Callistus, if you committed adultery or fornication, that was it!  Callistus (and Augustine after him) let adulterers and fornicators confess their sins, do penance and be readmitted to Holy Communion.

The same with heretics.  Before Callistus heretics needed to do public penance for their mortal sins.  But Callistus allowed them to do private penance and quietly returned them to communion.

And then there were the Bishops.  Before Callistus, if a Bishop committed a mortal sin (adultery, homicide, heresy) he was automatically excommunicated.  But that was too harsh for Callistus, who declared that mortal sin was not always a cause for deposing a Bishop.

And then there were the disputes about marriage law. Callistus followed the Eastern practice of declaring null those marriages which took place before Baptism (what we now call the Petrine privilege), but Hippolytus and Tertullian loudly protested that he was wrong.

There is ever the temptation to play the role of Tertullian the schismatic or Hippolytus the heretic, to see the Church, her doctrine and her pastoral practices as some sort of a political game by which we gain power or prestige.  

But as entertaining as dueling Cardinals and the kevetching of talking heads can be, the matters before the Church at the beginning of her third century and at the start of her twenty-first are too important to be left to the one with the loudest voice or the slickest media presence.

For, in the end, the Pope alone “is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.” (Canon 331)  And it wasn’t to Andrew or to John or to James that Christ gave the power of the keys.  It was to Peter.

That would have been a good lesson for Hippolytus and Tertullian to keep in mind.  And it might be of some help to us as well.