St. Sixtus II, Pope, and Companions, Martyrs

August 7, 2020

The Pastor's Page

Pope St. Sixtus II was elected to the papacy on August 30, 257, and he served as pope for less than one year, until his martyrdom on August 6, 258. For centuries, his memorial was celebrated on his death anniversary, August 6, but when the liturgical calendar was revised in 1969 it was transferred to August 7 because of the Feast of the Transfiguration. His name is familiar because it is included on the first list of martyrs in the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer I. His name comes after Linus, Cletus, and Clement, and before Cornelius and Cyprian. During the early Church he was venerated as the most important martyred pope after St. Peter.

Botticelli, Sandro. Pope Sixtus II. 1480. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Pope St. Sixtus II succeeded Pope St. Stephen I. During his short eleven months he was faced was a controversy regarding the rebaptism of heretics and schismatics who wished to join the Church. His predecessor had been in a dispute with St. Cyprian, the bishop in Carthage in North Africa, who held that the baptisms conferred by heretics or schismatics were invalid because they were not in communion with the Church, while Stephen held that they were valid. He, with the help of Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, was able to forge a reconciliation with Cyprian and the churches of North Africa and Asia Minor, by accepting both approaches.

His entire pontificate was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Valerian who ruled from 253 until 260. Initially, Valerian tolerated Christians, but he reversed his position, issued a decree that insisted that all Roman citizens, Christians included, worship Roman gods and take part in their cultic worship, and he banned the celebration of Mass or the assembly for prayer at cemeteries. With that, a savage persecution began. Pope St. Sixtus II escaped detection for a short while. Valerian made a second declaration to the Senate, more stringent than the first, that any clergy, bishops, priests, or deacons, should be hunted down and executed immediately; and that high-ranking lay Christians should be demoted, their privileges taken away, their wealth forfeited, and if they would not renounce their faith, that they should also be put to death. Christian women of status were to have their property confiscated and be exiled, while Christian common folk were to have their homes and possessions seized and be forced into slavery.

On August 6, 258, Pope St. Sixtus II was celebrating Mass, presumably in secrecy of the underground catacombs, at the cemetery of Praetextatus which is located a short distance outside of Rome. Roman soldiers stormed the cemetery, captured him while he was seated and preaching to the congregation, and immediately beheaded him by the sword along with four deacons who were with him: Sts. Januarius, Vincent, Magnus, and Stephen. Two other deacons, Sts. Agapitus and Felicissimus, were beheaded later the same day. St. Lawrence, also a deacon, was beheaded four days later. Pope St. Sixtus II was buried in the catacombs of St. Callistus, across the road from the cemetery of Praetextatus, along the Appian Way.

Pope St. Sixtus II exemplified everything that St. Cyprian recommended to those oppressed by Valerian’s persecution. He did not have his mind fixed on death but on immortality, he committed himself to the Lord in complete faith and with unflinching courage, and he made his confession of faith with joy rather than fear. As a soldier for God and Christ, he was crowned with sainthood and eternal life.

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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