The next saint as we work through our list in the Roman Canon is St. Sixtus. Now there’s some uncertainty who this is because there’s a bunch of them (There are, thankfully, only five. I guess everybody thought “Sixtus the Sixth” would sound weird.)!
One opinion is that the name in the Eucharistic Prayer refers to Pope St. Sixtus I, who was the 7th pope of the Church, and ruled from 115 to 124 under the persecution of the Emperor Hadrian. He is credited with adding the “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the Mass, along with a few other liturgical practices.
However, most of the commentaries say that the name refers to Pope St. Sixtus II, who ruled from 257 to 258 under Emperor Valerian. He’s a little out of chronological order (the next saint, Cornelius, is a few years before), but his importance to Rome and his example give him pride of place here.
He was known as a great pastoral pope, having repaired a rift in the Church between the understanding of baptism in the Churches of Carthage and Rome. Pope Sixtus believed, as we do today, that baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Baptism bestows on our hearts a seal that can never be removed, no matter how severe our sins, and we can’t be “rebaptized”. The Church in Carthage said the opposite, but Sixtus worked with them to repair the argument and restore unity to the Church.
When Pope Sixtus II took over as Bishop of Rome in 257, Christianity was still illegal throughout the Roman Empire, but it was somewhat tolerated, and the penalty was exile rather than death. But the following year, the Emperor Valerian ordered the execution of Christian leaders and worshipping Christians. Sixtus was among the first to be executed in this new wave of persecutions, along with 6 of his deacons. The pope was hiding from the persecution in the catacombs, and one day, while celebrating Mass there in secret, a group of soldiers broke into the place where he and his deacons were to arrest and execute them on the spot. Sixtus bravely volunteered himself to be beheaded first, saving the worshipping lay faithful and inspiring courage in his fellow martyrs.
The martyrs were secretly buried in the catacombs in Rome, and Sixtus was laid to rest among the tombs of many other popes from the 1st and 2nd centuries. In the mid-1800’s, an engraved plaque detailing his martyrdom was discovered in the abandoned catacombs. Centuries before, the remains of St. Sixtus II had been moved to the church of San Sisto Vecchio, named in his honor. The relics remain in the rebuilt church today.
St. Sixtus is just one example among many of the courage and selflessness of the early martyrs as they faced persecution. But stay tuned, because there are many more courageous martyrs to come!