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Good popes, bad popes – the first millennium

Features

Mgr John Broadbent
5 April 2012

altPapal reputations are often shaped by the era in which they lived.

As seen in the series the Borgias screened on television last year, standards of morals and behaviour were at times quite different in the history of the church from those that guide today’s society.

According to the Vatican yearbook Annuario Pontificio, almost half of the 263 popes and 39 anti-popes from the time of St Peter lived in the first thousand years.

From Peter to Melchiades
In the time of the 32nd pope, Melchiades, Constantine the Great and co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, 313AD, conferring on Christianity a favoured status which halted the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.

In what was frequently a violently persecuted church, the popes were often in hiding, but exercised courageous leadership of their flock, with the exception of St Marcellinus (296-304AD).

When the persecution of Diocletian started in 303AD, some magistrates simply ordered the scriptures to be surrendered before an offering was made to the gods.
St Marcellinus was credited with doing both. Historians are at odds over whether he resigned or repented and was martyred.

For several centuries his name was omitted from the lists of popes and saints, but a Vatican I commission found that he never taught anything against the faith and he is now remembered on April 26 with Pope St Cletus.

Accounts of the lives of many of the early popes were destroyed by persecutors or by the natural decay of the parchment.

However, several are recorded, among them St Clement I (88-97AD) who wrote to the Corinthians to reinstate the elders or presbyters who had been deposed and to exile those who had instigated the rebellion.

The tone of the letter is persuasive and shows Rome’s interest in churches outside Italy.

African Pope St Victor I (189-198AD) sought to extend the Roman custom of keeping Easter on a Sunday instead of having it follow the Jewish Passover.  The origin of the term ‘catholic’

St Irenaeus Bishop of Lyons had to persuade him not to excommunicate opponents because it did not affect the essence of the Christian faith.

We owe to St Irenaeus the term ‘catholic’ – those Christians who are
1. united under one bishop who in turn is linked as an apostolic successor to all the bishops of the world;
2. who have the same inspired scriptures as all the other churches;
3. who share the same confession of faith before baptism (the Apostles Creed).
Lyons had one of the best schools of theology as Rome itself had become.

First of the anti-popes
The great thinker, St Hippolytus, was aggrieved when an ex-slave and secretary to a previous pope, Calixtus, was elected pope in 217. Hippolytus then had himself elected elsewhere in Rome and refused to acknowledge the two popes who followed Calixtus.

Maximinus Thrax became Emperor in 235 and increased persecution, exiling St Pontian to the salt mines in Sardinia, known as the ‘island of death’. Pontian then abdicated realising that Rome’s bishopric should not be left in a vacuum during his exile. Hippolytus, the first of 39 anti-popes (or popes elected by a minority faction) was also sent to Sardinia. The pair reconciled before their martyrdom together in 235. Their combined feast days are celebrated on August 13.

So the first anti-pope Hippolytus is a saint and the last of 39 anti-popes, Felix V, surrendered to the legitimate pope in 1449.