We begin with the eleven Pontiffs who governed the Church through the Second Century. All were saints; in fact every Pope up to Boniface II in the early Sixth Century was canonized a saint. This solidarity and sanctity strengthened the Church through the early centuries as we shall see in ensuing issues. For now we will deal with the eleven who ruled as the Successor of Saint Peter.
Upon the martyrdom of Pope Saint Clement I in 97 AD, Pope Saint Evaristus was elevated to the Throne of Peter. He divided the city of Rome into parishes and founded the first seven diaconates entrusted to senior priests. This, in essence, was the origination of the College of Cardinals. According to Church historians, Evaristus died a martyr in 105. However, also according to Church historians, there was another Pope who preceded him after Pope St. Clement. They list this pontiff as Pope Saint Anacletus who died in 112, moving Evaristus' death back to 121 AD. It was during this time period that Saint Symeon, Bishop of Jerusalem was put to death along with Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch by Roman Emperor Trajan. The confusion in dates in the early centuries helps accounts for the discrepancies in total number of Pontiffs through our present Holy Father Pope John Paul II. Some have him as the 264th Vicar of Christ, others list him as the 262nd and still others as the 263rd. We'll take the former and go with 264th which is what the Vatican press releases proclaim anyway, so we're in pretty good company there.
The successor of St. Evaristus was Pope Saint Alexander I who by most accounts was elected in 105 and was martyred in 115; other historians chart Alexander as having died in 132. These discrepancies continued basically until the Gregorian Calendar was established, therefore, to avoid confusion, we are going to chronicle the Vatican's list and dates of Roman Pontiffs. Alexander was a disciple of Plutarch and introduced the use of Holy Water into Churches plus drew up a prescription that all hosts that would be consecrated were to be of unleavened bread.
Upon his death in 115, the seventh Pope was Pope Saint Sixtus I who decreed that the Trisagion, which is from Isaiah 6: 3 be indoctrinated into the doxology of the Roman rite. He also decreed that the corporal be of linen and that all sacred vessels for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass be handled only by consecrated men.
Pope Saint Telesphorus succeeded Sixtus in 125. It was he who composed the Gloria as well as installing other prayers into the Mass and designated a Church-wide fast for seven weeks before Easter. He entitled priests to celebrate three Masses on Christmas. He died for his faith in 136 and was succeeded by Pope Saint Hyginus who was responsible for determining the different prerogatives of the clergy as well as defining the grades of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Hyginus is credited with introducing the practice of godparents for the Sacrament of Baptism to help strengthen and encourage the baptized ones. He gave a reverence to each edifice that served as a church by decreeing that all churches be consecrated. He was martyred in 140 by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
The first in an illustrious line of Popes named Pius was Pope Saint Pius I in 140. His pontificate lasted fifteen years. He is credited with establishing Easter as the first Sunday after the March full moon and his regulations governing the conversion of Jews was vital in bringing countless Jews into the Christian fold. It was during his reign that the apologists gained the greatest credibility. The Christian Apologists were those early doctors of the Church who defended the Church against the verbal attacks of pagans with great writings that defined the doctrines of the Church and, through logic and reason refuted everything the pagans accused Christians of being or doing. Some of these Apologists were Quadratus, Aristedes, Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus and the illustrious Tertullian, not to mention such great saints as Saint Polycarp, Saint Iranaeus and Saint Justin. Justin defended the Jews as well with the Dialogue with Trypho and squared off face-to-face with the Romans, including a heated argument with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius which led to Justin's death by martyrdom.
In 155 Pius I also died a marytr and was immediately followed by Syrian-born Pope Saint Anicetus who confirmed the celebration of Easter in accordance with the traditions of Saint Peter. This was a setback for the eastern followers who felt with one of their own on Peter's Chair that their position of observing Easter according to the Jewish calendar in the month of Nisan on the fourteenth day would prevail. But Anicetus's alignment with the western concept of the first Sunday after Good Friday caused many ill feelings as paranoia and fear crept in. Anicetus is credited with beginnign the trend of the clergy wearing short hair. Eleven years after being elevated to the papacy, he was martyred in 166.
His successor was Pope Saint Soter, 12th successor of Peter who was born in Fondi, Italy and is best known for ratifying Matrimony as a sacrament declaring that no one other than an ordained one could minister this sacrament. Pope Soter, remembered as the "Pope of Charity," specifically forbade women from burning incense during the congregation of the faithful, a practice with pagan roots that had seeped into the Church liturgy. He, like his predecessors died a martyr in 175. It was during his papacy that two of the great apologist saints were most well known. One was St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist. Polycarp wrote to the Philippians requesting them to love one another while despising heresy. He supported Pius I's opposition to the apostate Marcion who, when Polycarp was introduced to, asked if the Saint knew him. Polycarp, though known for loving all retorted: "I know you for the first-born of satan." That is how much he hated heresy. At the age of 86 he was brought before the Roman rulers in Smyrna and sentenced to be burned if he did not renounce Christ. He declined and when told that he would burn in the fire, replied that the fire of this would last but a few minutes, while the fire awaiting the wicked would last forever. He miraculously was preserved from being burned but met his death when an enraged soldier stabbed him in the heart. One of Polycarp's disciples was St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons who hailed originally from Greece. He was known as a great preacher and upon Polycarp's death became one of the Church's leading apologists. His greatest works were writings against the heresies especially the moral reformer Montanus who denied the cooperation of the Holy Spirit in the work of Jesus Christ, and the heretic Praxeas who vehemently denied the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. St. Iranaeus wrote what is considered the oldest complete Catechism of record, "The Proof of the Apostolic Teaching."
Pope Saint Eleutherius followed Pope Soter in 175 AD and, during his pontificate, dispatched missionaries Fugatius and Damian to what is today England to convert the Britons as they traveled with the Roman armies, a forerunner to countless nations who would send their missionaries with their armies or navies in the conquest of foreign lands. During his reign much confusion arose regarding Jewish customs on the purity and impurity of foods which many Christians were still observing. The western sect suspected the eastern sect of being in cahoots with the Jews and fought all overtures for compromise; likewise the eastern followers suspected influence from Rome and rejected reconciliation. This not only persisted but erupted into physical conflicts in various villages. This was not what Christ had intended. Sadly, Eleutherius was not able to clear this up and, shortly after, met his bloody death at the hands of the pagans in 189.
He was succeeded by Pope Saint Victor who died a martyr ten years later in 199. Victor was the first African-born Holy Father and fought relentlessly against infusion of power by the Asian and African bishops to set the Easter celebration according to the Roman rite, not the Jewish rite. It was one of the final breaks between the Old and the New, forcing a confrontation between the eastern and western sects. To head this off, Victor convened the first council in 191. To his chagrin the council voted unanimously in favor of the eastern tradition. In retaliation Pope Victor threatened to excommunicate them. That is when St. Iranaeus, the wise Apologist who was dearly respected by both factions, stepped in reminding Victor that St. Polycarp, who Iranaeus learned from, and Pope Anicetus had differed on the same thing but remained united and separated in peace. So also in Galatians 2, Peter and Paul disagreed but Peter, through prayer and discernment, condescended to Paul's views. This wisdom, brought about by St. Iranaeus, curtailed the excommunication threat and accord was reached. Victor also declared that in the case of an emergency any kind of water could be used to baptize a person. This was decreed because of the growing "instant" conversions by Roman gladiators and spectators who were overwhelmed by the love and acceptance of martyrdom by so many Christians. Many requested to be baptized and die with the Christians right then and there on the Colosseum floor. Water in troughs where the beasts would drink and where Romans washed down the blood of the martyrs was the only available liquid. St. Victor allowed this water to be valid for baptism. It was in this same Colosseum that Victor met his death in 199.
Victor was followed by Pope Saint Zephyrinus, the 15th successor of Peter, who would take the Church into the Third Century, the century of Origen, Tertullian and the first holy hermits which we will follow-up on in the next installment.