Serendipity happens. Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 18:21-19:1), the story of the forgiven but unforgiving servant, is really appropriate for the saints we celebrate today. But, it is part of the cycle of daily readings that has no direct relationship to them. The readings are for Thursday of
the 19th week in ordinary time, while today’s saints, Pontian and Hippolytus, are always celebrated on August 13. They both died in 236 in Sardinia, exiled from Rome, under harsh conditions in the mines. Legend has it Pontian was beaten to death with sticks, while Hippolytus (his name means “wild horse”) was pulled apart by wild horses.
Hippolytus is one of those guys who was just too smart for his own good. He was renowned as a philosopher and theologian, and claimed an apostolic pedigree: he was a student of Irenaeus, who was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of St. John the Apostle.
He got upset with Pope (now also St.) Callistus early in the century because he felt Callistus was a heretic because he was trying to mediate some disputing theologians.
Also, Callistus was pretty low on the social ladder, having formerly been a slave who was freed and given an administrative position by a previous pope. Hippolytus, on the other hand, was a high-brow academic.
Here’s where the forgiveness bit comes in. To make matters even worse, Hippolytus couldn’t tolerate the “liberal” laxity of Pope Callistus (and his successors, Urban and Pontian) who welcomed repentant sinners (especially sexual sinners and apostates – those who reverted to pagan worship under persecution) back into communion with the Church. As far as Hippolytus was concerned, they should not have a second chance, and should be shunned and left to rot in hell.
He went so far in his opposition to the popes that he decided that Callistus, and then Urban and Pontian, could not be legitimate and therefore he and his cronies set him up as the first antipope. He was far from the last. In subsequent centuries, there have nearly forty (!) antipopes. Times have always been turbulent. Today is no exception.
In 235, Pontian was pope, and Maximinus, a foreigner probably from a barbarian tribe to the east, got himself chosen Roman emperor. He was harsh and brutal, and needed a lot of money to finance his escapades, so he did what others have done – launched a persecution against Christians. Max was not into fine theological distinctions, like who was or wasn’t the real pope, so he had them both exiled to hard labor in Sardina. There, before they died, these two antagonists were reconciled to each other, and both gave their lives for the same Christ. While they are celebrated on this date every year at Mass, I suspect few know the fascinating story behind these two names
Is there a lesson for us today? How about the “hard lines” that both liberals and conservatives use as self-justifying pretexts to demonize each other? Perhaps we should try forgiveness.
One final bit of interest regarding Hippolytus. In one of his writings, the Apostolic Tradition, he give us one of the oldest descriptions of the celebration of the Eucharist, and a sample text of how the presider should pray the Eucharistic Prayer. That third-century text became the basis for the Second Eucharistic Prayer composed for use in the revised liturgy as a result of the Second Vatican Council.