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Catholic Heroes… St. Callistus

July 27, 2021 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

Memory can be fleeting — ashes to ashes and dust to dust. But to God, no one is forgotten, every soul remains forever mirrored in His mind’s eye. And the redeemed all belong to the Communion of Saints. Even more amazing is when someone is known long after one’s death, despite the fickleness of history.
Such is the situation with St. Callistus, whom we still remember nearly 1,800 years after his life. Ironically, what we largely know of him is through the writings of another saint, St. Hippolytus, who was angry at St. Callistus for years and saw him as his enemy. But more on that below.
Callistus was a Roman born in the second century after Christ. He was either a slave or domestic servant to Carpophorus, in the house of Caesar. Put in charge of money matters in an imperial household, he set up a bank. By some ill fortune, the bank failed, not necessarily through any fault of his. But due to the obvious difficulties, he fled. Chased by his master and caught, he was then sent off to the mines in Sardinia as punishment. (Sardinia is the second largest island off the coast of Italy.)
Then, after a time, a number of the slaves were mercifully freed and Callistus had the luck to be amongst them. He traveled to Antium, an ancient port in the vicinity of Rome. From here he was discovered and recruited by Pope St. Zephyrinus, who saw in him talents far beyond those of a failed “bank manager.”
Land had been given to the Church which became, in essence, the first Christian cemetery. The root word in Greek, “coemeterium” means “dormitory,” because Christians from the very beginning have always known this earthly realm is but a transitory state on the way to the next world. (Families at the time either commonly buried the dead on their own property, outside the town’s limits in the “city of the dead,” or burned the bodies.)
Pope Zephyrinus put Callistus in charge of the “cemetery,” the catacombs, and 1,800 years later we still know the name of Callistus as they continue to bear his name. Pope Zephyrinus made Callistus a deacon and, after the Holy Father’s death in 217, he was elected by popular acclaim as the next Pope. Because he was chosen over Hippolytus, he had his own followers, and they decided to elect Hippolytus notwithstanding so, for some time, there was a split in the papacy, with Callistus in the end prevailing.
Despite the many centuries in the interim, Hippolytus did help us to discover a fair amount about Callistus. First, it was he who installed the ember days for fasting and prayer throughout the year. He established that those who guilty of mortal sin were again allowed recourse to Communion and the sacraments, after due penance. He distinguished marriage as a sacrament, different from civil marriage, and recognized that marriages between a slave and a free man or woman were valid, which the Roman Empire did not.
Although the times were said to be peaceful for Christians, there was always a danger of martyrdom. Sadly, St. Callistus was martyred after five years in the papacy. Some say he was cast into a well with a stone around his neck. He is therefore often portrayed with a stone, while wearing his papal tiara. Buried in the Cemetery of Calepodius on the Aurelian Way, his remains were transferred to another church St. Callistus had founded by the eighth century, Santa Maria in Trastevere. Tradition says this church is on the site where Callistus was drowned and a small niche contains the marble rock said to weigh him down as he breathed his last.
The throne also bears an inscription, stating that the church is the first dedicated to Mary. If not, it was certainly one of the earliest. This is yet one more argument from those who like to claim that the importance of the Virgin was “invented” in later centuries. Despite those who sometimes claim that the Church later invented Marian devotion, we see such proofs of love for the Mother of Our Savior even in these early days of the Church. Likewise, catacombs bear witness in their decoration to early devotion to Mary.
We would be negligent were we not to mention that the Catacombs of St. Callistus along the Appian Way are among the most notable in Rome. Over time the site grew came to be the largest of any of the catacombs, five levels and 12 miles, with an underground staircase taking one down to the depths, and thousands were buried there. These naturally included many early Christian martyrs, as well as at least sixteen Popes! Because so many Bishops of Rome rested here, part of the catacombs was nicknamed the “Little Vatican.” St. Cecilia was also among the site’s most famous residents. When barbarians invaded Rome around 410, many of these remains and relics were moved to prevent desecration. Still there are doubtless countless unopened tombs, however, awaiting the Second Coming.
It is difficult, obviously, to obtain even an inventory of the Popes buried there. One partial list includes the following, all of whom are saints and two of them martyrs: Popes Pontian, Anterus, Fabian, Lucius I, Eutychian, Callistus, Anastasius, and Boniface I. Engravings not infrequently say “bishop” rather than “Pope,” because, after all, the Popes were also known as the Bishops of Rome.
The catacombs were used for religious ceremonies, but also to pay honor to the martyrs and pray. According to the Vatican:
“St. Jerome [347-420] was the first to recount how as a student he would go Sundays to visit the tombs of the apostles and the martyrs together with his study companions. ‘We would enter the galleries dug into the bowels of the earth….Rare lights coming from above land attenuated the darkness a little….We would proceed slowly, one step at a time, completely enveloped in the darkness’.”
Amazingly, for many hundreds of years these catacombs were forgotten, entrances hidden from view. In the sixteenth century, Giovanni Battista de Rossi would become known as the father of Christian archaeology, and bring them back into public view. New audiences of believers were able to view the ancient but beautiful images of faith left behind hundreds of years before. One view included symbols, prayers, and testimonies of love and life from those gone before. Pope Sixtus II was a favorite tomb; he was martyred in the year 258 saying Mass at the entrance of the tombs. Yes, this is the St. Sixtus mentioned even today in the Canon of the Mass.
St. Jerome was not alone in spending time in the catacombs. In 1873, during the jubilee of Pope Leo VIII, St. Therese of Lisieux was able to visit the Crypt of St. Cecilia before her remains were moved. She confessed in her diary that she and her sister reached down to take a small handful of soil from the saint’s tomb with them. She grew from having no special devotion to St. Cecilia to feeling her a “friend.”
Are they not all our “friends”? Are we not one body, one day united in our glorious Community of Saints? May all these souls laid here, through the intercession of St. Callistus, enjoy eternal rest, and may perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.
The feast day of St. Callistus is October 14.

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