The ninth installment of this mega-part series on the History of the Mass and Holy Mother Church
deals with the eleven holy pontiffs who guided Holy Mother Church through the Second Century, a
century known for the Christian Apologists, those learned men who staunchly defended the faith in
their writings and preachings, refuting the unfounded calumnies uttered by the pagans and atheists
against the persecuted Church and her members. These mounting persecutions claimed the lives of
countless martyrs at the hands of Roman Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and
Septimus Severus, but the blood of these martyrs sowed the seeds of Christianity as the Church
spread the Doctrine of the Living God and His New Sacrifice to Asia, Africa, Spain, France, the
Rhine Countries and Britain, not to mention gaining a strong foothold in the seat of the Church -
Italy, and more specifically - Rome.
The Second Century: Century of the Christian Apologists - the early Fathers and 'Doctors' of the Church
We saw, in the last installment on the Second Century, how the evolution of the early Christian
spiritual life and liturgy solidified the faith in the face of mounting persecutions as countless Christians
were slaughtered in the name of Jesus. From their blood the seeds of Christianity were nourished
abundantly, multiplying the land with disciples who would eventually take the Gospel to every known
nation. In this chapter we continue with the Second Century, concentrating on the principals of this
era, specifically the Popes and Apologists.
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.
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
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 Saint 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." We will expand more on the contributions of this esteemed Father of the Church in a few paragraphs down.
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.
As for St. Irenaeus, he would follow Victor three years later to his Heavenly reward. Irenaeus, as Butler's Lives of the Saints relates, was born in the year 120; he was of the Greek tongue, and probably a native of Asia Minor. His parents, who were Christians, placed him while still young under the care of the great Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. It was in this holy school that he learned the sacred science which later made him a great ornament of the Church and the terror of her enemies. Saint Polycarp cultivated his rising genius and formed his mind to piety by his precepts and example, and the zealous young scholar was careful to reap all advantages offered him by the solicitude of such a master. Such was his veneration for his tutorís sanctity that he observed all the acts and virtues he saw in that holy man, the better to copy his example and learn his spirit. He listened to his instructions with an insatiable ardor, and so deeply did he engrave them in his heart that the impressions remained vivid even in his old age. In order to confound the heresies of his age, this Doctor of the Church acquainted himself with the conceits of the pagan philosophers, and thereby became qualified to trace every error to its sources and set it in its full light. By his writings he was already known to Tertullian, Theodoret and St. Epiphanus, who speak of him as a luminous torch of truth in the darkness of those times.
After Irenaeus had spent a number of years in combat against the eastern gnostics and philosophers of error, Saint Polycarp determined to send him to Gaul, where many of the heretics of Asia Minor had already migrated to pursue the Catholic religion, which was beginning to find roots there. With a company of about forty Christians, the valiant soldier of Christ ascended the Rhone to Lyons to rejoin and aid Saint Pothinus, its bishop. Saint Pothinus was already advanced in age, and his churchís neophytes could not always distinguish truth from the gnostic aberrations. St. Pothinus received the apostles with joy and soon ordained Saint Irenaeus.
A hundred times he exposed himself to martyrdom by his zeal, acting as the right arm of the aging bishop, but God was reserving that crown for him twenty-five years later. When Saint Pothinus had glorified God by his splendid martyrís death in the year 177, Ireneus was chosen to be the second bishop of Lyons. The persecutors imagined that Christianity had been stifled in Lyons, and they ceased their pursuits for a time.
This early Doctor of the Church, though not recognized among the 33 Doctors for he was considered more one of the Fathers of the Church, wrote many important works, of which the most famous is his Adversus Haereses, Against the Heresies, in explanation of the Faith. By his preaching, Saint Irenaeus in a short time converted almost the whole country to the Faith; the Christians of Lyons became models by their candor, their estrangement from all ambition, their poverty, chastity and temperance, and in this way confounded many adversaries of their religion. Saint Irenaeus continued to imitate what he had seen done by his beloved master, Saint Polycarp, himself the disciple and imitator of Saint John the Apostle. One can readily imagine the excellence of the administration and the breadth of charity reigning in the Church of Lyons.
Finally he suffered martyrdom there, with many others, in the year 202, under the Emperor Septimus Severus, after eighty years spent in the service of the Lord. The imperial decrees renewing the persecutions arrived at Lyons at the time of the celebration of Severusí tenth year of reign; the pagans found amid the celebrations an opportunity to take vengeance on the Christians, who refused to participate in the debaucheries which accompanied these feastings. Assassins armed with daggers, stones and knives filled the city with blood, and thousands of Christians won, with their bishop, the crown they had always admired as the greatest glory God could grant His servants.
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. St. Zephryrinus was the Pontiff who decreed young people from 14 on up could receive Holy Communion. This would stand for 18 centuries until Pope Saint Pius X lowered it to 7 years of age, the age of reason to allow more children to receive the Bread of Life.