Many may not believe this, but a man who lived almost 1800 years ago would have such a stronghold over believers today. Note, I purposely said 1800 years ago so no one would get this man confused with Jesus who lived more than 2000 years ago. Today we are going to look at the life of St. Sixtus II.
St. Stixus II was the Pope (Bishop of Rome) from August 257-August 6, 258. In a little over a year, his papacy was without some very tense problems, concerns and worries. Much like some of the problems we face today. Of the first 48 popes who died before the year 500, 47 are saints; half of them were martyrs. St. Sixtus was one of the 47. Yet, his death and his life have touched so many people. The Italian artist Raphel caught some of this man’s greatest in his famous painting, Sistine Madonna. This painting was commissioned by Pope Julius II for the Church at San Sisto, Placenza in 1512. Perhaps no other Pope was executed so quickly or abruptly or for such a small reason.
A Roman of Greek descent, Sixtus was elected to the papacy in 257. Much of Italy was under the influence of the Greeks. The Greeks had settled in this area and maintained a strong presence in Italy until well after the fall of Rome in the 5th century. Sixtus II succeeded to the chair of Saint Peter at a very difficult time in Church History. The on-again, off-again persecutions of the early Church were on-again in the 250s. Blaming Christians and squeezing Christians for additional taxes or even taking their land became fair game during this period of time.
The Roman Emperors were changing quickly during this time. Emperor Valerian sought the blood of Christians not only to try to decapitate the surging Church but also to confiscate the wealth and property of Christians. The Church was perceived to be wealthy. Whether this prescription of reality was real or not, it didn’t really make a difference. The truth wouldn’t satisfy someone who believed or was told differently.
The tensions in Church-State relations were no less serious than internal Church tensions tearing at its unity. The persecution of Decius from 250–251 was wicked, cruel, and relentless. Decius’ edict required everyone in the empire to sacrifice to a Roman god in the presence of a state official, with a signed libellus, or certificate, being issued afterward as proof that the sacrifice had been offered. If you could not provide or produce these papers you could be arrested or killed on the spot. Decius took a play out of the Secluid’s playbook with the Jews and tried to stop this religion from growing by changing their beliefs.
Many Christians were weak and afraid and so sacrificed to gods they knew didn’t exist. There were just a few people who went along with this so Decius decided to exert additional pressure.
Some Christians purchased a libellus, some fled to the safety of the countryside, and some refused to sacrifice and were cruelly martyred. Rome was winning because it created more Gold for the treasury and it created confusion for the Church. Now, if this was not bad enough to have that much pressure from the government to change your religion, inside the Church, there were great differences over the practices of baptism. One group supported infant baptism- a practice the Early Church adopted and another supported rebaptism. This was ritual baptism- a renewal baptism. John The Baptist was a good example of ritual baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Many people inside of the Church were very upset with the people who had fallen away from the Church. They wanted them to be baptized because they felt like their first baptism was not valid. This is why many people in the Church wanted them to be baptized again.
Before his death, however, Sixtus II had successfully healed the breach between Rome and the churches of North Africa, Syria, and Asia Minor that had been opened by the dispute over the rebaptism of heretics and schismatics who wished to enter or be reconciled with the church. His positive spirit and ability to listen to all sides and then strike on a path that would allow both sides to feel good about this decision worked out and avoided a tremendous split in the Church at that time over this issue.
Representing the tradition of Rome, Alexandria, and Palestine, Sixtus’ predecessor, Stephen I, had opposed the widespread practice in North Africa, Asia Minor, and elsewhere of requiring the rebaptism of those who had been baptized by heretics or schismatics. Stephen thought it was not right. However, many Church leaders in the areas involved did not hold that same position in this matter.
The situation reached crisis proportions following a third North African synod which supported Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, against the pope. Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria intervened, urging Pope Stephen to adopt a less confrontational approach, but he was rebuffed.
Had not Stephen died in the midst of the controversy and had not his successor, Sixtus II, reached out to Cyprian and the estranged churches of Asia Minor, probably by agreeing to tolerate the coexistence of the two practices, one can only imagine how the situation might have deteriorated even further. Cyprian’s biographer would later describe Pope Sixtus II as “a good and peace-loving priest.”
Overall there have been five Popes who took the name Sixtus. The first of the line did so because he was regarded as the “sixth” successor of St. Peter. He reigned from about the year 116 until about 125.
On Aug. 7, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of another Pope Sixtus II (257-58), outstanding for his holiness and his courage in the face of certain martyrdom. Indeed, he is generally regarded as one of the church’s most highly venerated martyrs.
Sixtus was elected Bishop of Rome just as the emperor Valerian abandoned his policy of toleration toward Christians. Valerian changed from being tolerant to being actively aggressive to the Church. Valerian had for many years been tolerant of the Church and its practices. He now ordered Christians to participate in state-sponsored religious ceremonies and forbade them from gathering in cemeteries where they often celebrated the Eucharist together.
Sixtus II, however, was politically savvy enough to avoid unnecessary confrontations with the emperor, that is until the emperor issued a second edict ordering the execution of bishops, priests and deacons and imposing assorted penalties on laypersons. Pope Sixtus II thought that this had gone too far. Who was the Emperor to tell him where and when they could celebrate Mass?
On Aug. 6, 258, the Pope wanted to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration with a Mass. This Holy Day of Obligation would not be denied in the mind of St. Sixtus. While the pope was seated in his episcopal chair addressing the congregation at a liturgical service in the private, and presumably safe, the cemetery of Praetextatus, imperial forces rushed in and seized and beheaded the pope and four of his deacons.
It was said that the Pope refused to flee to save his own life because he feared that the soldiers would retaliate by massacring the entire assembly. Two other deacons were executed later the same day, and the seventh -- the famous St. Lawrence -- was put to death four days after that.
After Sixtus’s martyrdom, his body was transferred to the papal crypt in the cemetery of Callistus on the Appian Way. The bloodstained chair on which he had been presiding when killed was placed behind the altar in the crypt’s chapel.
A century later, Pope Damasus I (366-84) composed an epitaph describing the execution and had it placed over the tomb. The name of Sixtus II was subsequently included in the first part of the Canon of the Mass (today known as Eucharistic Prayer I).
Why is he important? He died so we might all be able to practice our beliefs. He took a stand on Holy Feast Day- Day of the Transfiguration has come to be celebrated on August 6 by Pope Calixtus III in 1457 as a thanksgiving offering for the victory over the Turks at Belgrade on that day in 1456. However, we now know that on that same day some almost 1200 years earlier, St. Sixtus gave up his life for the Church, his followers, and showed us an example of what we need to do to make a stand against political leaders who stand in the way of God. Clearly, brothers and sisters, we need more people like St. Sixtus today.