Pope St. Alexander I: Bringing Catholic Culture Home to You!

Pope_Alexander_ISo we’ve had John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and Ignatius, which brings us now to Alexander, or rather Pope St. Alexander I. The traditions around St. Alexander are a bit hazy – he wasn’t the most well-known or popular pope in the history of the Church – but apparently, he was important enough at the time to find his way into our prayers! He was the 5th pope to succeed St. Peter the Apostle, and reigned from around 107 to 115, although that is somewhat disputed. He was Roman by birth, and became a priest of the diocese of Rome, until he became the Bishop of Rome under the Emperor Trajan.

St. Alexander is actually pretty important to the Church, as he is sneakily responsible for some of the practices that we use even today. One of these is the practice of using holy water fonts in the home. If you don’t have one of these, look it up at your local Catholic goods store. Blessing ourselves as we enter and leave our homes is a great way to keep our minds on Christ and protect our home and family against the influences of sin.

A related practice attributed to St. Alexander is the use of blessed salt in the home as well. This isn’t as common as holy water, but it is a traditional practice of the Church to remind us of Christ’s call to be the “salt of the earth” and to protect against the Evil One. Often times, the blessed salt is dissolved in the holy water fonts for double the blessings and protection! Let me know if you want some salt blessed…

St. Alexander is also credited with being the first to include the institution narrative (the Qui Pridie as it is called), which as you might recall, are the words commemorating and bringing about again the events of the Last Supper during Mass. This is the most important part of the Eucharistic Prayer, so this is quite a contribution to the Church from St. Alexander. Many scholars don’t really believe that he is responsible for this, but who cares, right? That’s what tradition says!

Tradition also tells us that St. Alexander (after bringing us holy water, blessed salt, and the Institution Narrative), suffered martyrdom alongside two of his priests, Eventius and Theodulus, on the Via Nomentana, northeast of Rome. The Roman Martyrology, which catalogs the martyrs for each day, says that he suffered “fetters, imprisonment, the rack (what is that?!?), and torture by hooks and fire” before he was slain with “sharp implements”, whatever that means. Needless to say, it wasn’t pleasant! In 1855, his body, along with Eventius and Theodulus, was discovered in a subterranean cemetery, supposedly on the site of his martyrdom. His relics were then translated to the ancient basilica St. Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome, where you can still see and venerate them today.

The Church (and St. Cornelius) vs. The Novatianists, Round 1! Fight!

StCorneliusThe next saint on our list is Pope St. Cornelius. He was born of a middle class family and was given a poor education, but rose to be an incredibly influential priest of Rome. (Strangely, his name means “battle horn”, and he is usually pictured holding a bull’s horn or with a cow close by. Crazy!) As he was carrying out his ministry, the persecutions under the Emperor Decius were so fierce that there was a 14 month gap after the martyrdom of Pope Fabian, Cornelius’ predecessor. It was only in March of 251 when enough clergy could be gathered to have an election for the new pope!

The main issue that Cornelius had to deal with was what to do with those who had apostatized, an issue we mentioned last week with Pope Sixtus II. Apostasy is the formal and public abandonment of the faith. This might not seem to happen too much, but it had become a real problem in this time period. Emperor Decius had decreed that anyone accused of being a Christian would be placed before a commissioner and required to offer a sacrifice of burnt incense before the Roman gods and the Emperor. Compared to torture and death, a little pinch of incense might not seem so bad, but beneath it all, it was a fundamental choice against God and toward the worship of idols – a.k.a, apostasy.

So what do we do with these apostates? That was the question. In those times, confession happened only once in a lifetime, so between baptism and confession, you pretty much had two chances to get things right. Some confessors at the time weren’t really counting sins of apostasy as that big a deal, and told their penitents that they were merely victims of circumstances. On the other hand, rigorists led by the Roman priest Novatian declared that these lapsed Christians could never be forgiven. Oh yeah…then he declared himself pope. Pope St. Cornelius declared that while apostasy was a serious sin (yep!), it could be forgiven (hooray!), with the sacraments and appropriate penance.

All this theorizing was put to the test again in the year 252, when Decius was killed in battle and Gallus became emperor. The persecutions roared back to life. Cornelius was put to the test, and as an example of courage to those who might consider apostatizing, he proclaimed the truth of his faith boldly, and earned exile to what is now Civitavecchia, Italy. Ultimately, Cornelius died in 253, under the hardships of exile, but the Church considers him a martyr. After things calmed down in Rome, his body was brought back and laid in the catacombs. Incidentally, the inscription on his tomb was the earliest known papal tomb to have been inscribed in Latin.

Once again, a brave example of faith. Tune in next week to hear about St. Cornelius’ dear friend, St. Cyprian of Carthage!

St. Sixtus the Second, Staunch Servant of the Sacrosanct Sacraments

Pope St. Sixtus II
Pope St. Sixtus II

See what I did there?

The next saint as we work through our list in the Roman Canon is St. Sixtus. Now there’s some uncertainty as to which “Sixtus” 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 believed the opposite, and Sixtus worked with them to repair the rift between them 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 in secret, a group of soldiers broke into the area 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!

The Pope Who Helped Anchor the Early Church…Literally!

"Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity" by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
“Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Going with the recent theme, we’re on to the fourth pope of the Church, Pope St. Clement I, who served as Bishop of Rome from 92 to 99 AD. He is an Apostolic Father, meaning that he knew St. Peter and St. Paul, well enough to be mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3 and to be ordained a bishop by Peter.

Like St. Paul, he was a bit of a writer, but his most important (and most authentic) letter was to the Corinthians. It’s not part of Scripture by only a few years, but it’s incredibly important! The letter gives us a glimpse of what the Church was like just 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The people of Corinth were getting in trouble again, this time for starting to think they didn’t really want their bishop or priests. So St. Clement wrote the community to teach them about what the apostles intended (he knew them, by the way) and what was the right thing to do.

One reason why the letter is so important is that it distinguishes very clearly the different, but important roles of the presbyters (what we call priests today), bishops, deacons, and laity. Think about that – it’s 96 AD! Vatican II wouldn’t happen for another 1800+ years! Sometimes people think that priests, deacons, and bishops were invented later on as the Church got bigger, but as this letter shows us, things got very organized, very quickly. Clement tells us that it’s because people get into fights (you know…like YOU CORINTHIANS) that the apostles provided for the succession of authority in the Church.

saintc48The other interesting thing goes back to why the letter was written. Clement makes reference that the Corinthians actually sought him out for his attention and teaching. Now why would the Corinthians, all the way over in Greece, write some guy in Rome? Because he’s the pope, of course! The idea and role of the papacy was still very primitive in the 1st century, but already, the Churches all over the world were looking to him as an authority! That’s pretty cool!

The Church celebrates St. Clement as a martyr, although we’re not really sure how his death came about. Legends were written about his death, and they’re probably based on at least a little truth, so let’s just go with it. The legends say that when Trajan came to power in Rome in 98 AD, Clement was imprisoned and sent to work in a rock quarry near present-day Crimea. When he arrived at the work camp, he found the prisoners starving from lack of water, so he knelt down in prayer, got up, and struck the ground with his pickaxe, releasing a stream of clean water. I guess the Romans didn’t like that much, because he was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea (ouch!). Today, his relics are housed in the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome, named in his honor.

It’s neat and sometimes surprising to see how alive and organized the Church was in these early times. But wait! There’s more popes to come!

St. Cletus: Either a Redneck or an Early Church Pope

saintc48Today we continue the list of the saints mentioned in the Roman Canon, and incidentally, we continue on down the line of the first popes. Peter, of course, was the first, and St. Linus, who we discussed last week was the second, and that would make St. Cletus the third. He is also referred to as St. Anacletus, so pick whichever name you prefer.

By all accounts, which are very, very few, St. Cletus was a Roman, born of Roman parents, and lived in Rome. We don’t know much about his life prior to (or heck, even during) his papacy, but the fact that he was the third bishop of Rome shows his virtue among all the other disciples of St. Peter.

St. Cletus apparently wanted to do what he could to be more pastoral and take care of the needs of the people of Rome, and since the Roman Church was so large, he needed to harness his skills of organization to do it! He was the first to establish 25 parishes in Rome, and ordained a number of priests to serve in them. Incidentally, the 25 highest ranking Cardinals in the Church are still named as honorary pastors to these parishes today!

St. Cletus was martyred under the Emperor Domitian around 92 AD. Domitian’s persecution was the first of the truly organized persecutions of Christians in the Empire. Sure, Nero killed a number of Christians in 64 AD, including St. Peter and St. Paul, but for the most part, Nero was just lashing out. Domitian’s persecution was very organized and very harmful. Those accused of being Christians were brought before a tribunal, and ordered to take the oath to the Roman Gods and the Emperor. Not giving homage to these gods was considered unpatriotic and atheistic, so many of the early Christians were ironically tried as atheists. When Christians refused the oath, they were condemned. The victims were numerous, including Antipas (mentioned in Revelations 2:13) and members of the Emperor’s own household, which tells you how much Christianity had spread in just 60 years. St. Cletus was one of those put to death as well, and was buried under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome next to his predecessor, St. Linus.

Well, two down, and a few more popes to go! See you next week!

Pope St. Linus…and his blanket

220px-Pope_Linus_IllustrationJust kidding.  There’s no blanket.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve gone through the early apostles and learned a little about their lives and the greater traditions surrounding them. The apostles were genuinely fantastic figures, from all we’ve been able to learn from them! But our first Eucharistic Prayer is a unique gift in that it also throws out there a lot of names that we don’t usually hear about: Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, and on. The theory is that these names were mentioned in the prayer because they meant so much to the faithful of the Church in Rome. Members of the Church there would have personally known these individuals and would have heard their preaching. The prayer comes from ancient times, so these names were their contemporaries.

So following the list, our first saint is St. Linus. No, he wasn’t famous for holding his security blanket and waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. Everybody knows that St. Peter was the first pope, but do you know the second? That’s right! Pope St. Linus! Many of the early Fathers of the Church attest to this as well, and he is even mentioned in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy. How appropriate, because he was an associate of St. Paul, and most likely ordained a bishop by the Great Apostle himself. St. Linus, therefore, might be considered one of the “Apostlolic Fathers,” that generation of saints who weren’t apostles themselves, but who knew and learned from the apostles and succeeded them in their ministry. We will continue to hear about the Apostolic Fathers in the near future.

Statue of St. Linus Portico Ceiling of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
Statue of St. Linus
Portico Ceiling of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

Typically, the Church celebrates St. Linus as a martyr, as we do most of the other first popes, but it’s unclear how true that is. Certainly St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred in Rome under the Emperor Nero, and it might be possible that St. Linus was caught up in the aftermath of that, but after Nero, there were very few open persecutions until the Emperor Domitian, who reigned 13 years later. Still, St. Linus could have suffered what the Early Church called a “white martyrdom” in his sufferings for the faith. After his death on September 23, St. Linus was buried on the Vatican Hill in Rome, next to St. Peter. Today, his remains are believed to be in a tomb near the apostle under the great St. Peter’s Basilica.

Tune in next week for another pope!

Saints of the Roman Canon: Pope St. Alexander I

Pope_Alexander_ISo we’ve had John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and Ignatius, which brings us now to Alexander, or rather Pope St. Alexander I.  The traditions around St. Alexander are a bit hazy – he wasn’t the most well-known or popular pope in the history of the Church – but apparently, he was important enough at the time to find his way into our prayers!  He was the 5th pope in the succession from St. Peter the Apostle, and reigned from around 107 to 115, although that is somewhat disputed.  He was Roman by birth, and became a priest of the diocese of Rome, until he became the Bishop of Rome under the Emperor Trajan.

St. Alexander is actually pretty important to the Church, as he is sneakily responsible for some of the practices that we use even today.  One of these is the practice of using holy water fonts in the home.  If you don’t have one of these, look it up at your local Catholic goods store.  Blessing ourselves as we enter and leave our homes is a great way to keep our minds on Christ and protect our home and family against the influences of sin.

A related practice attributed to St. Alexander is the use of blessed salt in the home as well.  This isn’t as common as holy water, but it is a traditional practice of the Church to remind us of Christ’s call to be the “salt of the earth” and to protect against the Evil One.  Often times, the blessed salt is dissolved in the holy water fonts for double the blessings and protection!  Let me know if you want some salt blessed…

St. Alexander is also credited with being the first to include the institution narrative (the Qui Pridie as it is called), which as you might recall, are the words commemorating and bringing about again the events of the Last Supper during Mass.  This is the most important part of the Eucharistic Prayer, so this is quite a contribution to the Church from St. Alexander.  Many scholars don’t really believe that he is responsible for this, but who cares, right?  That’s what tradition says!

Tradition also tells us that St. Alexander (after bringing us holy water, blessed salt, and the Institution Narrative), suffered martyrdom alongside two of his priests, Eventius and Theodulus, on the Via Nomentana, northeast of Rome.  The Roman Martyrology, which catalogs the martyrs for each day, says that he suffered “fetters, imprisonment, the rack (what is that?!?), and torture by hooks and fire” before he was slain with “sharp implements”, whatever that means.  Needless to say, it wasn’t pleasant!  In 1855, his body, along with Eventius and Theodulus, was discovered in a subterranean cemetery, supposedly on the site of his martyrdom.  His relics were then translated to the ancient basilica St. Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome, where you can still see and venerate them today.

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Cornelius

StCorneliusThe next saint on our list is Pope St. Cornelius.  He was born of a middle class family and was given a poor education, but rose to be an incredibly influential priest of Rome.  (Strangely, his name means “battle horn”, and he is usually pictured holding a bull’s horn or with a cow close by.  Crazy!)  As he was doing his ministry, the persecutions under the Emperor Decius were so fierce that there was a 14 month gap after the martyrdom of Pope Fabian, Cornelius’ predecessor.  It was only in March of 251 when enough clergy could be gathered to have an election!

The main issue that Cornelius had to deal with was what to do with those who had apostatized, an issue we mentioned last week with Pope Sixtus II.  Apostasy is the formal and public abandonment of the faith.  This might not seem to happen too much, but it had become a real problem in this time period.  Emperor Decius had decreed that anyone accused of being a Christian would be placed before a commissioner and required to offer a sacrifice of burnt incense before the Roman gods and the Emperor.  Now, compared to torture and death, a little pinch of incense might not seem so bad, but beneath it all, it was a fundamental choice against God and toward the worship of idols – a.k.a, apostasy.

So what do we do with these apostates?  That was the question.  In those times, confession happened only once, so between baptism and confession, you pretty much had two chances to get it right.  Some confessors at the time weren’t really counting sins of apostasy as that big a deal, and told their penitents that they were merely victims of circumstances.  On the other hand, rigorists led by the Roman priest Novatian declared that these lapsed Christians could never be forgiven.  Oh yeah…then he declared himself pope.  Pope St. Cornelius declared that while apostasy was a serious sin (yep!), it could be forgiven (hooray!), with the sacraments and appropriate penance.

All this theorizing was put to the test again in the year 252, when Decius was killed in battle and Gallus became emperor.  The persecutions roared back to life.  Cornelius was put to the test, and as an example of courage to those who might consider apostatizing, he proclaimed the truth of his faith boldly, and earned exile to what is now Civitavecchia, Italy.  Ultimately, Cornelius died in 253, under the hardships of exile, but the Church considers him a martyr.  After things calmed down in Rome, his body was brought back and laid in the catacombs.  Incidentally, the inscription on his tomb was the earliest known papal tomb to have been inscribed in Latin.

Once again, a brave example of faith.  Tune in next week to hear about St. Cornelius’ dear friend, St. Cyprian of Carthage!

Saints of the Roman Canon: Pope St. Sixtus II

Pope St. Sixtus II
Pope St. Sixtus II

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!

Saints of the Roman Canon: Pope St. Clement I

"Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity" by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
“Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Going with the recent theme, we’re on to the fourth pope of the Church, Pope St. Clement I, who served as Bishop of Rome from 92 to 99 AD.  He is an Apostolic Father, meaning that he knew St. Peter and St. Paul, well enough to be mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3 and to be ordained a bishop by Peter.

Like St. Paul, he was a bit of a writer, but his most important (and most authentic) letter was to the Corinthians.  It’s not part of Scripture by only a few years, but it’s incredibly important!  The letter gives us a glimpse of what the Church was like just 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The people of Corinth were getting in trouble again, this time for starting to think they didn’t really want their bishop or priests.  So St. Clement wrote the community to teach them about what the apostles intended (he knew them, by the way) and what was the right thing to do.

One reason why the letter is so important is that it distinguishes very clearly the different, but important roles of the presbyters (what we call priests today), bishops, deacons, and laity.  Think about that – it’s 96 AD!  Vatican II wouldn’t happen for another 1800+ years!  Sometimes people think that priests, deacons, and bishops were invented later on as the Church got bigger, but as this letter shows us, things got very organized, very quickly.  Clement tells us that it’s because people get into fights (you know…like YOU CORINTHIANS) that the apostles provided for the succession of authority in the Church.

The other interesting thing goes back to why the letter was written.  Clement makes reference that the Corinthians actually sought him out for his attention and teaching.  Now why would the Corinthians, all the way over in Greece, write some guy in Rome?  Because he’s the pope, of course!  The idea and role of the papacy was still very primitive in the 1st century, but already, the Churches all over the world were looking to him as an authority!  That’s pretty cool!

The Church celebrates St. Clement as a martyr, although we’re not really sure how his death came about.  Legends were written about his death, and they’re probably based on at least a little truth, so let’s just go with it.  The legends say that when Trajan came to power in Rome in 98 AD, Clement was imprisoned and sent to work in a rock quarry near present-day Crimea.  When he arrived at the work camp, he found the prisoners starving from lack of water, so he knelt down in prayer, got up, and struck the ground with his pickaxe, releasing a stream of clean water.  I guess the Romans didn’t like that much, because he was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea (ouch!).  Today, his relics are housed in the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome, named in his honor.

It’s neat and sometimes surprising to see how alive and organized the Church was in these early times.  But wait!  There’s more popes to come!