Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Popes of the Late Second Century: Hyginus, Pius, Anicetus, Soter, Eleutherius and Victor

Reading N°43 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Under Trajan (A.D. 98 - 117) and Hadrian (117 - 138), the Christians had mainly to die. Their fearlessness in the presence of torture and death was their great apologetic. Some of them did publish written apologies, but their purpose was to offer a defense against calumny and injustice. From Antoninus Pius (138 - 161) to Septimius Severus (193 - 211) their courage does not fail at the sight of torments; but their apologetics assume a greater scope. Not merely do they refute their enemies' charges, but they labor to win over those enemies; they also endeavor to defend the purity of their faith against heretical alterations and, in the heat of the strife, they start the first theological synthesis of their beliefs.

From the coming of Antoninus Pius to the middle of the reign of Commodus (177 - 192), the legal status of Christians remained what the rescripts of Trajan and Hadrian had made it. The Church was nearly all the time suffering persecution in some place or other, now because of formal accusations in accordance with the imperial rescripts, now in consequence of popular commotion half-heartedly repressed or even encouraged or aroused by the magistrates themselves. From the middle of Commodus' reign to the middle of that of Severus, the Christians enjoyed about fifteen years of peace, a sort of transition between the regime of persecution by rescript, in force throughout the whole second century, and that of persecution by edict, which prevailed at intervals during the third century.[1] St. Polycarp, St. Felicitas and her sons, St. Justin, St. Cecilia, the martyrs of Lyons, and the martyrs of Scillium were the most illustrious victims of the persecution of this period.

Ss. Hyginus (139-149), Pius I (149-157) and Anicetus (157-168)

We know but little of the pontiffs who governed the Church at this time. Under Diocletian (284 - 305), all the registers of the Roman Church were destroyed - an irreparable loss for the history of the Roman pontiffs. The Liber Pontificalis, written in the sixth century and based on oral traditions and doubtless on certain written documents that had escaped the search of the persecutors, says of St. Hyginus, the successor of St. Telesphorus, that no trace is found of his genealogy.[2] It is supposed that he was a philosopher and native of Athens. Tradition credits him with "the organization of the clergy."[3] It has been supposed that this remark concerns the institution of minor orders.[4] His successor, St. Pius I, is set down as the brother of Hermas, of whom we shall have to speak later. The statement that to him is due the practice of celebrating Easter on Sunday[5] is certainly a mistake, because Hyginus, Telesphorus, and Sixtus are mentioned by St. Irenaeus as having observed this custom.[6] About St. Anicetus, successor of St. Pius I, we know almost nothing, except that he was born at Emesa, a city of Syria, and that he made rules about the life of the clergy, whom he forbade to take excessive care of their hair.[7]

St. Soterus (168-177)
St. Soter, who succeeded him, is supposed to have been a native of Campania. It is said that he showed great zeal in observing liturgical regulations, and forbade women to touch the sacred linens.[8] Eusebius quotes a valuable letter of Dionysius of Corinth, which shows that this Pope, continuing the generous traditions of his predecessors, was in the habit of giving liberal succor to poor churches. The testimony of the bishop of Corinth is noteworthy as an homage of that time to the mother Church, which, as in the days of St. Ignatius, always merited the glorious title of "the one that presides at the charities." Dionysius wrote as follows to the Romans:
This has been your custom from the beginning, to do good in manifold ways to all Christians, and to send contributions to the many churches in every city, in some places relieving the poverty of the needy, and ministering to the Christians in the mines, by the contribution which you have sent from the beginning, preserving the ancestral custom of the Romans, true Romans as you are. Your blessed bishop Soter has not only carried on this habit, but has even increased it.[9]
The end of the letter shows with what veneration the documents coming from the Apostolic See were always received at Corinth:
Today we observe the holy day of the Lord, and read out your letter, which we shall continue to read from time to time for our admonition, as we do with that which was formerly sent to us through Clement.[10]
St. Eleutherius, who was chosen to succeed St. Soter, is said in the Liber Pontificalis to have negotiated with an Anglo-Saxon king, or rather the head of a clan,[11] about the conversion of Britain. The historical genuineness of this event, however, is questionable.[12] More authentic is his correspondence with the Churches of Lyons and Vienne on the occasion of the martyrdom of St. Pothinus and his companions.

It was during the pontificate of Eleutherius that Irenaeus began his great work, in which he recognizes the Roman Church as the "chief guardian of the Apostolic tradition." With Pope St. Victor, who succeeded St. Eleutherius and who governed the Church until the close of the second century, papal history is illumined with more numerous documents. In his pontificate the great baptismal controversy took place and the first discussions began in the Trinitarian controversy.

Ss. Eleutherius (177-185) and Victor I (185-199)

Tradition calls both of these popes martyrs. In the early centuries, this title was bestowed, not only on those who gave up their life for the faith, but also on those who faced the risks of a perilous situation.[13] But it is highly probable that Roman pontiffs were put to death in a time when the sword of persecution threatened everyone who did not practice the religion of the emperors. The silence of written documents is no reason for refusing these venerated pontiffs of the Roman Church the glorious title which the Catholic Church gives them in her liturgy.


[1] Allard, Hist. des pers., I, iii.
[2] Duchesne, Lib. Pont., I, 131.
[3] "Clerum composuit." (Duchesne, loc. cit.)
[4] Ibid., note.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Eusebius, H. E., V, xxiv, 14.
[7] "There can be no question here of the tonsue, which even in the sixth century was still one of the episcopal insignia." (Duchesne, op. cit., I, 134.)
[8] Duchesne, op. cit., I, 135.
[9] Eusebius, H. E., IV, xxiii, 10.
[10] Ibidem, no. 11.
[11] Great Britain was then a Roman province, and could not have had a king.
[12] Duchesne, op. cit., I, cii ff.
[13] St. Cyprian gives Pope Cornelius the name of martyr for the single reason that he had "willingly occupied the Apostolic See at Rome at the very time when the tyrant was issuing the most terrible threats." (Letter of St. Cyprian to Antonianus; apud Ep. S. Cornelii, x, 9).


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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this breath of fresh air. To think there were Popes way back who we can call on to help us understand the truth - comforting.


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