22nd Week of Ordinary Time – Year A

Hello again,

What with the excitement of beginning limited-numbers, Sunday Mass last weekend , and producing a Newsletter / Order of Service for the same , I simply forgot to put together some words for the website. My apologies.

During the week I tried to make amends by adding parts of last week’s ‘Mass Newsletter’ to the website – but , as you will appreciate , the few pages were more geared to the Mass than for general circulation.

So , here we are again , as the autumn of the year approaches , with the holiday season more or less over and the customary return to school , BUT all under the shadow of the worldwide pandemic , which we are coming to learn to live with in our individual circumstances and in the knowledge that it is simply not going to go away any time soon. Yesterday evening I was in conversation with Parishioners and a chance remark about ‘Christmas’ was made. I wonder what will be the situation when the time comes around ?

With this in mind I thought of something connected with today’s Gospel pericope. (It’s so annoying that every time I write that word , the computer automatically ‘spell-checks’ it to ‘periscope’ ! Is this an instance of ‘artificial intelligence’ ?)

Last weekend we heard Jesus say , “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church…………” , and I mentioned that the word ‘church’ is found only twice in the Gospels , and the two instances in Matthew’s Gospel. I added that finally I discovered the identity of the author who made the quip , “Jesus preached the Kingdom and it is the Church that came.” It was the French biblical scholar Alfred Loisy (1857 – 1940).

Since the time St. Matthew included those words into his account of the ministry of Jesus , what tremendous events have occurred in the succeeding centuries and millennia , and still , the oft-buffeted , (and on many occasions the severely-buffeted) , ‘barque of Peter’ , continues on her course , always open to renewal , as she seeks to preach the authentic Gospel of Jesus the Christ in season and out of season.

Continuing the reflection , let’s consider the ‘Petrine office / ministry’ , in the light of the 266 , (or 265 , depending on your source) , successors of St. Peter. The majority have been admirable , a good number have been outstanding (two have been called ‘Great’ , with moves to add St. John Paul II to this select pair) ; quite a few have been canonised as Saints of God , some have been forgettable , (and a few truly so) , while , sadly , a handful have been odious.

The Papacy is the longest-lasting institution the world has ever known , and while the first two hundred years are open to a certain amount of conjecture as to names and dates , from the third century onwards we have documentary evidence concerning the Bishops of Rome and Successors of Peter. On the whole , it makes fascinating and uplifting reading – that weak and limited human beings have been ‘in-spirited’ to act as the ‘Vicar of Christ’ on earth.

It is our tradition that the first ‘Roman-born’ Pope was the immediate successor to Peter – one Linus , whose feast day we celebrate every September 23rd , though in our time Padre Pio is also culted on that day and may be a more familiar figure to present day Catholics.

The third Bishop of Rome is traditionally recorded as Anacletus , who was the first Greek Pope and he was also sainted. Indeed , of the first 50 consecutive Bishops of Rome , 48 are canonised Saints.

The tenth Pope , St. Pius I , (11th January 140 – 11th July 155 AD) , decreed that Easter should be always celebrated on a Sunday.

The next , was the first Syrian Pope , by the name of St. Anicetus. He is remembered for ruling that priests were not to let their hair grow long.

The fourteenth Bishop of Rome, St. Victor I , (26th May 189 – 28th July 199 AD) was a Berber from north Africa – thus claiming to be the first Pope from that continent. Coincidentally , in the year 199 AD , appeared the first ‘anti-pope’ (the first of some 30 or so) , named Natalius , who later made his peace with the authentic Pope and enjoyed reconciliation.

Just a handful of years down the road , in 217 AD , came the much more famous anti-pope , St. Hippolytus , and would it be a surprise to discover that we celebrate his Feast Day every year ? For centuries the date was 14th August but in our time that date has been assigned to St. Maximilian Kolbe , so Hippolytus , and the authenic Pope of the time , St. Pontian , are now both honoured on the 13th August.

It is food for thought and reflection : two Saints (and one of them an anti-pope to boot) , most certainly experiencing martyrdom in the year 235 AD matched with another Christian martyr who was canonised in 1982. In last week’s Gospel we heard the words , “On this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.” (Matthew 16) , surely a promise lived out in the lives of these Saints ?

Hippolytus is a somewhat mysterious and enigmatic figure. He was probably the most important Christian writer of his time in Italy. We know nothing of his early life , but the fact that he wrote entirely in Greek at such a late date suggests that he came from the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

He was a priest in Rome and was extremely well-educated. These being the very earliest centuries of the Church , there were a large number of different opinions concerning Christian teachings. We needn’t go into them here , but off the top of my head I can recall docetism , modalism , arianism , nestorianism , sabellianism , donatism , quatordecianism , and that’s to mention just a few. The votaries of these sects were convinced that their’s was the correct version of Christianity and all others were damned.

To defend the Catholic tradition , Hippolytus wrote his monumental and magisterial , 10 volume work , the ‘Refutation of All Heresies’. Then , in order to emphasise Catholic fidelity to the teachings of the Apostles , as handed down in the living tradition of the Church , he wrote a significant tome called ‘The Apostolic Tradition’. This is still a vitally important composition for us , as it is rich in its descriptions of the liturgy of those days , as well as the disciplines and practices observed by these early Christians , under the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

He was also the author of numerous texts dealing with the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. He wrote commentaries on many biblical Books and in great measure it is due to him that we are enjoying a renewed interest , since the Second Vatican Council , on the systematic interpretation of every Book of Sacred Scripture. Furthermore , he played an important role in the composition of the Bible , (the ‘Sacred Canon’) , as we have it down to our day.

SO FAR SO GOOD WITH HIPPOLYTUS :

Unfortunately , Hippolytus belonged to what we might call a fundamentalist and rigourist faction of the Church in Rome and became extremely dissatisfied with what he saw as a diluting of doctrine and a lax approach to sinners in the Christian community. It all began with his opposition to Pope Zephyrinus , (the 16th Bishop of Rome) , whom he described as “a simple man with little education.” The Church was becoming too lenient in its ways under this Pope, according to Hippolytus , but it was when St. Callistus was duly elected in 217 AD , that the ‘break’ took place. Hippolytus became the leader of a schismatic grouping in the City , assuming the role of an ‘anti-pope’.

If we consider Peter’s spontaneous , and all-too-human , response to Our Lord’s words concerning His Passion and Crucifixion , which we hear in today’s Gospel pericope – just so might we view the reaction of Hippolytus to the election of Callistus to the See of Peter. The latter is a rare example of a Pope who had been born a slave , served a jail sentence for embezzlement , was arrested for inciting a brawl in a synagogue and finally sentenced to hard labour in the salt mines of Sardinia – a virtual death sentence , since no one survived the harsh conditions of that ancient ‘concentration camp’. Miraculously (?) , his name was somehow added to a list of the condemned prisoners who were to receive an Imperial Pardon – and from that day forward he mended his ways – until his meritorious, reformed and pardoned , new-life-in-Christ resulted in his election as Bishop of Rome.

You can imagine the outrage of Hippolytus and his acolytes at this turn of events. The schism continued despite the death of Callistus during a riot in the City in 222 AD.

Then , in March 235 AD , the soldier-emperor Maximinus Thrax came to power with a loathing of Christians. One of those sporadic bursts of persecution now ensued and the Roman military had no interest in Christian disagreements ; both Hippolytus and the current Pope , St. Pontian , were despatched to the aforementioned salt mines of Sardinia , where they soon succumbed to the intolerable conditions.

Incidentally , Pontian was the first Bishop of Rome to abdicate , doing so in the sure and certain knowledge , (unlike Callistus) , that there would be no reprieve from his sentence. In the ‘Liberian Catalogue’ there is an entry that records his death as occurring on 28th September 235 AD. This is the earliest precisely recorded date we have in Papal history – all other apparently secure reckonings up to this point are made on scholarly conjecture , based on other known facts and contemporary events.

It is a matter of record that the bodies of both Pope Pontian and anti-pope Hippolytus were brought back to Rome , and that of the former was interred in the newly-completed papal crypt in the catacombs of St. Callistus. In 1909 fragments of his grave-slab , with his name in Greek and the title of ‘bishop’ inscribed on it. Hippolytus was buried in the cemetery on the Via Tiburtina. It is part of our tradition that the two former adversaries were reconciled before they died on the island of Sardinia – which is only right and fitting.

What lessons might we learn from this potted history of the earliest successors to St. Peter ? My thoughts are partly influenced by new and unsolicited emails from Mr. Murphy of California , the self-appointed chairman of ‘God’s Plan for Life’ , who is dedicated to defending God & the Church against the disastrous ruination of the Catholic Faith and disregard for doctrine he sees all around.

His latest communication ends with , ‘The Theology Against Face Masks in the Liturgy’ , (and anywhere else for that matter) , as presented in 10 turgid and tiresome points. The Church he contends is going to hell in a handcart unless we mend our ways and return to the true , (read , ‘his’) , practice of the Faith. Where have we heard this lament before ? How many times has the collapse of the Church been foreseen by the purveyors of doom since the time of Hippolytus (and probably even earlier) ?

To quote Hippolytus : “This , all you people , is our faith. We are not persuaded by empty words nor carried away by the whims of our heart nor enchanted by the persuasiveness of fine words……..Christ is the God of all things……..If you obey His holy commandments…….you will be honoured by Him.” [Refutation of All Heresies , 10 , 33-34]

I think that in this vignette is a great deal that speaks of ‘church’ , tradition , reconciliation and more besides.