Earlier this week, the Church observed the feast of two saints who died together in exile, after having been reconciled with one other following many years of theological and pastoral conflict. They are Saint Pontian and Saint Hippolytus. Their reconciliation provides a power example for us in an age where there are growing divisions within our own Church.
The issue that was the cause of the conflict between these two men was the “lapsi controversy”. The word “lapsi” referred to those Christians who had given in to the demands of the Romans and sacrificed to their pagan gods in order to save their lives during times of persecution in the second and third centuries. Many of these Christians repented of this grave sin and sought to return to the Church by asking for forgiveness. In response, the Church divided into two camps: those who were open to allow such Christians to return, after a sustained period of penance and those who believed that their sin was so grave that they could never return. Given the fact that the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance for individual penitents was not yet fully developed in the Church, the answer to this question was the difference between returning to the life of the Church or being banished for life.
Pontian was among those who were open to their return. Hippolytus took the firm stand that such return was impossible, even allowing myself to be declared the first anti-pope, putting him in blatant and hostile opposition to the Pope.
In time, they recognized that this controversy caused great harm to the Church. In addition, Hippolytus showed great humility by seeking reconciliation with the Pope. These are lessons that we should reflect upon in our own age. While the differences among us within the Church raise important questions and may even pose great challenges, they must never lead us to division or worse.
St Hippolytus and St. Pontian, pray for us.
The previous reflection originally appeared on Bishop Frank Caggiano’s Facebook page. Follow the Bishop for daily reflections and weekly videos.