Callistus, the saint honored today in our calendar, was a slave who became pope in 217 AD.
In the Roman empire then slaves not only did lowly demeaning work, they could be bank managers and school teachers and fulfill other professional duties as well. Tradition says Callistus was a Christian slave who was a financial manager for one of Rome’s royal families. At one time he was accused of mismanagement but then found innocent.
When Zephyrinus became bishop of Rome, he called on Callistus to serve as deacon in charge of a large Christian cemetery along the Via Appia, which today bears his name. Not only did Callistus bury the dead, he also cared for and supported the families they left behind.
Zephyrinus died in 217 A.D and Callistus succeeded him as pope by popular choice. Roman Christians saw him, not a slave, but a man of faith who could guide and lead them. The church grew under his leadership.
Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere
Tradition says Callistus built a place of prayer at or near a hospice for old or sick soldiers in Trastevere, where healing oil welled up. Today the beautiful Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere stands on the spot. Inscriptions taken from the cemetery of Callistus are embedded in its structure.The place where the healing oil was found is marked in the church and Callistus’ remains are buried under its main altar. He’s pictured in the great mosaic in the church’s apse. (above)
As pope, Callistus advanced certain causes. He favored free women being able to marry slaves. He favored ordination for men who had been married two or three times. He also maintained that the church could forgive all sins, even the sin of denying one’s faith.
Some opposed the pope, a former slave, because his views clashed with their own rigorous views, but Callistus shared St. Paul’s conviction that status doesn’t determine who you are. All are equal before God. There is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, neither male nor female.” (Galatians 3,28) And mercy is God’s gift to be experienced even now.
Callistus’ remains were found by archeologists in 1960. He is counted as a Christian martyr, but the circumstances of his death remain uncertain. The historian Eamon Duffy sees him murdered by a mob angered by Christian expansion in the already crowded district of Trastevere. (Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, p 14) Christians were growing in numbers and the church was becoming a substantial property owner, caring for 1,500 widows and other in need by 251 AD.
On August 2, 258, Pope Sixtus II and four deacons were martyred while celebrating the Eucharist in the catacombs of Callistus in Rome. Four days later, Lawrence the deacon was executed. Rome’s emperors, like Decius and Valerian, annoyed by the Christian expansion and seeking their assets, began a series of persecutions that led to the church’s further growth.