Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Popes of Persecution: Evaristus, Alexander I and Sixtus I

Reading N°38 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

St. Evaristus (99-105)
At the time of the Persecution under Trajan, the See of Rome was occupied by St. Alexander, the second successor of St. Clement. His first successor was St. Evaristus. We have no contemporary document concerning these two popes. The Liber Pontificalis, composed in the sixth century,[1] says that St. Evaristus was born of a Jewish father at Bethlehem. It is said this Pope ordained fifteen bishops, seventeen priests, and two deacons, and, for purposes of administration, divided the city of Rome into titles or parishes. These expressions must not make us suppose that St. Clement's successor constructed or consecrated in Rome parish churches properly so called. The reference is probably to private houses, such as the house of the Senator Pudens, which St. Peter is said to have made the meeting-place of the first Christians, or the houses of some other Christians whose names are recorded in Scripture or tradition: Prisca, Aquila, Lucina, Eudoxia, Pammachius, Fasciola.[2] By the fact that a house or a room was consecrated to liturgical worship, it was marked with a sign or title (titulus), similar to the signs or titles by which treasury officials marked property that was reserved to the service of the emperor. Such is the most likely explanation of this term, which passed into the language of the Church and is today reserved for churches having cardinals as titulars.[3]

Façade of the Basilica of Santa Pudenziana,
which stands on the site of the house of Senator Pudens

According to the Liber Pontificalis, we also owe to Pope Evaristus the law that a bishop must be assisted in his preaching by seven deacons, whose duty it is to attest the authentic statement of his words against possible charges of heretics.[4] It is supposed that the preaching here referred to was the recitation of the Preface and Canon. The Prefaces at that time varied with each Mass; into them were sometimes introduced, besides the recalling of the feast, exhortations suited to the circumstances.[5] Evaristus is supposed to have occupied the See of St. Peter for eight years and to have died a martyr; but neither tradition nor history gives us any details of his death.[6]

St. Alexander I (105-115)
His successor, Alexander, is said to have governed the Church for ten years, from 105 to 115. The Liber Pontificalis credits him with the insertion into the liturgy[7] of the words "qui pridie quam pateretur" which precede the words commemorating the institution of the Holy Eucharist, and originating the practice of blessing water, in which salt has been mixed, for use in sprinkling houses.[8] The official note giving him the title of martyr seems to depend upon a Passio Alexandri which is not contemporary with the events and does not merit more than relative confidence. According to this document, Alexander was beheaded and buried in a catacomb on the Via Salaria.[9] This Pope may have witnessed the triumphal festivities given at Rome for twenty-three days in 106 or 107, to celebrate Trajan's victory over the Dacians. Pliny relates that 10,000 wild animals were killed in those festivities, and that 10,000 men fought in honor of him who was called "the most merciful emperor."[10] Probably more than one Christian met his death on that occasion.

In the course of the following years, the head of the Church of Rome might have seen some great works carried out for the adornment of the Eternal City: the enlargement of the baths of Titus; a gigantic aqueduct to bring a new water supply (Aquae trajanae) to Rome; the 260,000 seats of the Circus increased by 5,000; and upon a new forum, ornamented with a triumphal arch and a splendid colonnade, the famous column of Trajan (140 feet high), surmounted by a statue of the Emperor in military uniform with a javelin in his hand. It did not enter Trajan's mind that he was working for Christian Rome, and that one day his statue would be replaced by that of St. Peter, the lowly Galilean fisherman, a greater conqueror than any emperor, since he conquered not bodies, but souls.

Trajan's Column (foreground)

St. Sixtus I (115-124)
The head of the Church chosen to succeed St. Alexander was a Roman called Sixtus. Doubtless, the people and the clergy of the city concurred in his election. If we take Eusebius' words literally, the first four popes after St. Peter were nominated by their predecessor, namely, Linus by St. Peter, Cletus by Linus, Clement by Cletus, and Evaristus by Clement.[11] If this method of appointment really was in use, it seems not to have been long continued. A number of reliable documents establishes the fact that, in the third century, the election of the bishop of Rome, though his primacy was universally recognized, was subject to the same regulations as that of other bishops; the canons of the Council of Arles (in 314) and of the Council of Antioch (in 341) inform us that they are ratifying an ancient custom when they decree that "a bishop may not be appointed otherwise than by a synod, according to the decision of those bishops who, after the death of his predecessor, have the right of choosing a worthy successor."[12] It is also certain that the priests and the people took part in these "synods."[13]

The election of Sixtus I must have occurred at the end of Trajan's reign, because the Liber Pontificalis merely says that he governed the Church in the time of Emperor Hadrian.[14]


[1] The first three centuries are the poorest in documents on the popes. The few lines which the Liber Pontificalis devotes to each of them are not free from criticism. The last persecution of Diocletian systematically destroyed the Christian books, the registers, and the acts of the martyrs; this loss was irreparable. Only fragments of these documents remain. Under such conditions, the field of conjectures and probabilities is necessarily more extensive than that of fully demonstrated truth. Yet these conjectures we gather with care, out of regard for whatever portion of truth they may contain, and if we set them down as such, we shall know that we are not false to historic truth.
[2] Martigny, art. "Titre," in the Dict. des antiq. chrét.
[3] This is the likely sense of the obscure phrase, "propet stylum veritatis" (Liber Pont. I, 126).
[4] Duchesne, Lib. Pont., I, 126.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Jaffé, Regesta pontificum, I, 4 f.
[7] "In praedicatione sacerdotum." (Lib. Pont., I, 127.)
[8] Ibid. On this ceremony, see the Sacramentarium Gelasianum, bk. 3, chaps. 75 ff., in Muratori, Liturgia romana vetus.
[9] See Acta sanctorum, May, I, 371 ff. On the value of this document, see Tillemont, Mémoires, II, 590, and Duchesne, op. cit., I, xci. "It is probable," says Chamard, "that the editor of the Liber Pontificalis confused Pope Alexander with a famous martyr of that name, who was buried on the Via Nomentana. [...] However, it is no less probable that he had another document from which he obtained the more certain notion of the pope's martyrdom." (Chamard, Les Origines de l'Eglise romaine, chap. 7.) It has been noted that most of the popes of the first three centuries are called martyrs. Although this qualification cannot be explained by precise details, it is true in a rather broad sense. (See St. Cyprian, Epistola ad Cornelium; apud Epistolas S. Cornelii, 7; cf. Tillemont, Mémoires, IV, 364; De Rossi, Roma sotterranea, II, pref.; Chamard, loc. cit.)
[10] Pliny, Letters, VIII, 4; Dio Cassius, LXVIII, 15.
[11] Eusebius, H. E., III, xiii, xxxiv.
[12] Council of Antioch, canon 23. Hefele, History of the Councils of the Church, II, 73.
[13] Cf. Canones Hippolyti, canons 7-28, apud Duchesne, Christian Worship, p. 525.
[14] Lib. Pont., I, 128.


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