"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

Two Former Enemies Made Saints: Pope Pontian And Antipope Hippolytus

St. Pontian, Pope
Two men died for the faith after harsh treatment and torture in the mines of Sardinia. St. Pontian was a Roman who served as pope from 230 to 235. During his reign he held a synod in Alexandria which confirmed the excommunication of the great theologian Origen (c. 185-254) who taught about universal reconciliation apokatástasis [ἀποκατάστασις], meaning, restoration to original nature. Pontian was banished to exile by the Roman emperor in 235. After receiving his sentence he resigned, the first pope to do so, in order to avert a power vacuum in the Vatican. He was beaten to death with sticks. With him in the mines was St. Hippolytus—whose name means “a horse turned loose.” He was a rigorist for whom even orthodox doctrine and practice were not good enough. Exhibiting a “holier than thou” attitude at first, he censured the popes in his time for tolerating a certain heresy or for being too lenient towards penitents. In his criticism he went as far as advocating the opposite extreme of the heresy he detested. So he had himself elected antipope by a group of followers believing that the Church must be composed of pure souls who are detached from the world. He remained in schism through the reigns of three popes. In 235, he also was banished to the island of Sardinia where the former Pope Pontian was imprisoned. Shortly before or after this event, he was reconciled to the Church and especially with Pope Pontian his prison-mate. The two shared the crown of martyrdom and their bodies were brought back to Rome and buried as martyrs with solemn rites.

St. Hippolytus' Martyrdom
Pontian and Hippolytus are just a few of many others in the history of the church who fought each other because of differences in beliefs. Sometimes, we think of those people who were excommunicated or declared heretics as necessarily bad people. On the contrary they were a holy company who lived saintly lives as they searched for the truth. If it were not for them, and the shedding of their own blood, perhaps we would have not gone this far in terms of understanding the depths of Christian faith. Such was the costly call of Pontian and Hippolytusto defend the faith with their blood. There were times when they went against each other because each one was trying to emphasize one area. Another example is that of Peter and Paul who had contrasting views whether or not the gentiles should first follow the Jewish practices like circumcision before they can become Christians. At the end of their debates, they always find a common path where peoples’ differences are reconciled. I am reminded of an excerpt from a poem by Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, I quote,
"I am like the rest between two notes, which are somehow always in discord because Death's note wants to climb over—but in the dark interval, reconciled, they stay there trembling. And the song goes on beautiful."
Amidst the tension between Pontian and Hippolytus, when both were about to drink from the cup of martyrdom together, they reconciled. Hippolytus humbly admitted his excesses of being an overzealous disciplinarian. What the two of them failed to learn while in their prime they learned in the pain and desolation of imprisonment, torture and death.

Finally, let me say a final word about Matthew’s take on reconcilation which is the source of the gospel reading for today’s feast. While I believe that this theme is present also in the other gospels, Matthew gives a uniqe perspective of the meaning of forgiveness as a Jewish Christian. As we all know the Jewish people have gone though a lot of persecution throughout history which caused resentment even within Jewish families. “If your brother listens to you, you have won him over.” But what if your brother or sister will not listen? This part is uniquely Matthew's. After outlining certain steps to take, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? Jesus, uncompromisingly says, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times… forgive.” Which is a another way of saying—always and without limit until you have lost count already still choose to forgive. Is there any other choice? Well there is which is like a choice between heaven or hell. You can remain bitter until the end waiting for the chance to get even, fantasizing the confrontation when you are able to let it all out and have the last laugh. But this is a kind of bondage at its worst. It is self-torture with a mistaken view that part of heaven's joy is looking down at the endless misery of those damned in hell. Jesus shows us the other path. And he not only sets the standard of forgiveness by drinking from the cup of suffering and death, he also offers to lighten the burden for us by forgiving. If Jesus Christ was willing to release us from the debt we owed him, who are we not to release those who have offended us? Lord give us the courage always to forgive. Saints Pontian and Hippolytus, pray for us. Fr. JM Manzano, SJ