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Feastday: October 14

Imagine that your biography was written by an enemy of yours. And that its information was all

anyone would have not only for the rest of your life but for centuries to come. You would never be

able to refute it -- and even if you couldno one would believe you because your accuser was a saint.

That is the problem we face with Pope Callistus I who died about 222. The only story of his life we

have is from someone who hated him and what he stood for, an author identified as Saint

Hippolytus, a rival candidate for the chair of Peter. What had made Hippolytus so angry? Hippolytus

was very strict and rigid in his adherence to rules and regulations. The early Church had been very

rough on those who committed sins of adultery, murder, and fornication. Hippolytus was enraged by

the mercy that Callistus showed to these repentant sinners, allowing them back into communion of

the Church after they had performed public penance. Callistus' mercy was also matched by his

desire for equality among Church members, manifested by his acceptance of marraiges between

free people and slaves. Hippolytus saw all of this as a degradation of the Church, a submission to

lust and licentiousness that reflected not mercy and holiness in Callistus but perversion and fraud.

Trying to weed out the venom to find the facts of Callistus' life in Hippolytus' account, we learn that

Callistus himself was a slave (something that probably did not endear him to class-conscious

Hippolytus). His master, Carporphorus made him manager of a bank in the Publica Piscina sector

of Rome where Callistus took in the money of other Christians. The bank failed -- according to

Hippolytus because Callistus spent the money on his own pleasure-seeking. It seems unlikely that

Carporphorus would trust his good name and his fellow Christians' savings to someone that


Whatever the reason, Callistus fled the city by ship in order to escape punishment. When his

master caught up with him, Callistus jumped into the sea (according to Hippolytus, in order to

commit suicide). After Callistus was rescued he was brought back to Rome, put on trial, and

sentenced to a cruel punishment -- forced labor on the treadmill. Carporphorus took pity on his

former slave and manager and Callistus won his release by convincing him he could get some of the

money back from investors. (This seems to indicate, in spite of Hippolytus' statements, that the

money was not squandered but lent or invested unwisely.) Callistus' methods had not improved with

desperation and when he disrupted a synagogue by shouting for money, he was arrested and

sentenced again.

This time he was sent to the mines. Other Christians who had been sentenced there because of

their religion were released by negotiations between the emperor and the Pope (with the help of the

emperor's mistress who was friendly toward Christians). Callistus accidentally wound up on the

same list with the persecuted brothers and sisters. (Hippolytus reports that this was through

extortion and connniving on Callistus' part.) Apparently, everyone, including the Pope, realized

Callistus did not deserve his new freedom but unwilling to carry the case further the Pope gave

Callistus an income and situation -- away from Rome. (Once again, this is a point for suspecting

Hippolytus' account. If Callistus was so despicable and untrustworthy why provide him with an

income and a situation? Leaving him free out of pity is one thing, but giving money to a convicted

criminal and slave is another. There must have been more to the story.)

About nine or ten years later, the new pope Zephyrinus recalled Callistus to Rome. Zephyrinus was

good-hearted and well-meaning but had no understanding of theology. This was disastrous in a time

when heretical beliefs were springing up everywhere. One minute Zephyrinus would endorse a belief

he thought orthodox and the next he would embrace the opposite statement. Callistus soon made

his value known, guiding Zephyrinus through theology to what he saw as orthodoxy. (Needless to

say it was not what Hippolytus felt was orthodox enough.) To a certain extent, according to

Hippolytus, Callistus was the power behind the Church before he even assumed the bishopric of


When Zephyrinus died in 219, Callistus was proclaimed pope over the protests of his rival candidate

Hippolytus. He seemed to have as strong a hatred of heresy as Hippolytus, however, because he

banished one of the heretics named Sabellius.

Callistus came to power during a crucial time of the Church. Was it going to hang on to the rigid

rules of previous years and limit itself to those who were already saints or was it going to embrace

sinners as Christ commanded? Was its mission only to a few holy ones or to the whole world, to

the healthy or to the sick? We can understand Hippolytus' fear -- that hypocritical penitents would

use the Church and weaken it in the time when they faced persecution. But Callistus chose to trust

God's mercy and love and opened the doors. By choosing Christ's mission, he chose to spread the

Gospel to all.

Pope Callistus is listed as a martyr but we have no record of how he was martyred or by whom.

There were no official persecutions at the time, but he may well have been killed in riots against


As sad as it is to realize that the only story we have of his life is by an enemy, it is glorious to see

in it the fact that the Church is large enough not only to embrace sinners and saints, but to

proclaim two people saints who hold such wildly opposing views and to elect a slave and an alleged

ex-convict to guide the whole Church. There's hope for all of us then!

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