St. Callistus I

From Slave to Shepherd

St. Callistus (pope and martyr) was one of the most unlikely yet highly influential popes of the early Church.

Callistus was originally a slave in an important Roman household. Callistus managed to lose some money entrusted to his care, so he fled. Upon being recaptured, he was imprisoned for a time.

Soon after his first release, he was arrested again — this time for causing a disturbance in a synagogue — and sentenced to work in the mines of Sardinia. Eventually Callistus was freed through the influence of a member of the imperial court. After being emancipated from slavery, Callistus was placed in charge of the public Christian burial ground in Rome. This land, which is still known as the Cemetery of St. Callistus, was possibly the first property ever owned by the Church.

Pope St. Zephyrinus ordained Callistus a deacon and relied upon him as an adviser. After the pope’s death in 217, Callistus was chosen to succeed him as the sixteenth Bishop of Rome. This provoked a schism, for St. Hippolytus, the losing candidate, established himself as the first antipope and bitterly attacked Callistus’s positions. Especially galling to Hippolytus was Callistus’s willingness to readmit notorious sinners to the Church upon sincere repentance and acts of penance. Hippolytus, a very strict and demanding person, felt the pope was being much too lenient.

In 222, Callistus was killed, apparently by a rioting mob, and he was widely venerated as a martyr. Most of the information we know about him comes from St. Hippolytus, who was reconciled to the Church before dying as a martyr on August 13, 235.

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