Pope St. Sixtus II, Martyr

(Died A.D. 258)

When we speak of the Roman persecutions lasting from A.D. 67 to A.D. 313, we must not think that the faithful were under constant pressure. They were “suspects” at all times, and prejudice could break out in certain parts of the Roman Empire at any moment, and result in lynchings. Yet there were also, from time to time, more widespread persecutions, authorized by emperors who decided nervously to arrest the growth of the Christian Church.

During periods of relative peace, the Church could not only multiply its adherents, but acquire church property: churches, welfare centers, cemeteries. By the middle of the third century, the diocese of Rome owned several cemeteries on the outskirts of town. For the most part, these were the underground cemeteries we call “catacombs”. In volcanic lands like Italy, the rock known as tufa lent itself easily to being tunneled. In the walls of the long corridors, slots could be cut for burial spaces similar to the vaults in our present-day mausoleums. The familiar phrase, the “Church in the catacombs”, is mistakenly interpreted to mean that they were used for Sunday Masses. The catacombs were simply not equipped to handle Sunday crowds, and they were not safe as hiding places, nor healthful living quarters. Not that Masses were not offered in these cemeteries; but they were weekday Masses, on the occasion of a burial or an anniversary of death, whether of a martyr or of any member of the Christian community.

Pope Sixtus II became bishop of Rome in August, 257. Martyrdom would halt his pontificate after only a year.

Sixtus (or Xystus) was elected pope to succeed Pope St. Stephen I. Both men were contemporaries of St. Cyprian, the great, if controversial, bishop of Carthage, Africa; and it is through Cyprian’s writings that we know most of what we do know about both popes.

Cyprian had become engaged in a sharp controversy with Pope Stephen over whether heretics could administer baptism validly. Cyprian held that they couldn’t, according to the opinion prevalent in Christian North Africa. Stephen said they could. When the question was raised, therefore, Stephen told the Africans to desist from re-baptizing converts baptized by those in heresy. When Cyprian and his follow Africans withstood the order, Stephen seems to have been ready to cut off communication with them. Whether he did excommunicate them is not known. It seems more likely that he yielded to the persuasion of St. Denis of Alexandria and allowed a cooling-off period.

When Stephen died, Sixtus continued to be gentle toward the African bishops. Apparently Cyprian was pleased by this gentility, for his biographer would refer to Sixtus as “a good and peaceable priest.” The cooling off was made easier by the outbreak of a new empire-wide persecution aimed at preventing Christians from assembling. “No meetings are to be held anywhere, nor shall they enter the burial areas.” A second decree followed on August 10, 258, commanding that all bishops, priests and deacons be executed at once.

St. Cyprian, having learned of the first decree, urged his flock to prepare to lay down their lives if need be. He himself would be executed as a Catholic bishop in September 258, as a result of the second edict. In a letter written to a colleague on August 10, 258, Cyprian recorded the news from Rome about Pope Sixtus. “You should know that Sixtus, furthermore, was executed in a cemetery on August 6, and with him four deacons…” The pope was apparently celebrating a funeral or memorial Mass at a gravesite in the Roman cemetery of Praetextatus, despite the imperial decree against holding meetings or “entering burial areas.” Policemen or military entered the catacomb and found the pope seated, delivering a homily. They either took him outside or slew him as he sat. The four deacons with him were also executed. Their names were Januarius, Vincent, Magnus and Stephen. Two others, Felicissimus and Agapitus, were slain the same day. St. Sixtus was buried in the cemetery of Calixtus.

St. Sixtus’ name, along with that of St. Cyprian, was placed in the Roman Canon of the Mass, now called the First Eucharistic Prayer. We have not forgotten his heroism!

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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