Every other Friday in D-List SaintsLuke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.

If you’ve attended a traditional, liturgical church in the past few decades, you’ve probably encountered the following call-and-response pattern:

[Pastor:] The Lord be with you.

[Congregation:] And with your spirit.

[Pastor:] Lift up your hearts.

[Congregation:] We lift them up to the Lord.

[Pastor:] Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

[Congregation:] It is right and just so to do.

The English translation varies, since it was originally composed in Latin, but the exchange (called a “eucharistic preface,” if you want to impress all your liturgy-nerd friends) is an ancient one, having been in use in Christian worship, on and off, since at least the third century A.D. It’s one of those things, if you’re familiar with it, that you probably take for granted as the background noise of worship—but of course, someone had to write it at some point, and it happens to be one of Christianity’s most ancient texts.

It also happens that it was written by one of ancient Christianity’s biggest curmudgeons—one who managed to convince himself, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was the pope.

If you’re wondering how someone can just declare himself pope, keep in mind that things in the church were way less formal back then.

The exchange, and others that are still in contemporary usage, comes from the Anaphora of the Apostolic Tradition, which was composed around A.D. 200 or so by St. Hippolytus of Rome. Hippolytus was a prominent priest in the Roman diocese and is widely regarded as one of the great defenders of the Christian faith. He’s also regarded, by me at least, as one of those people that just suuuuuper needed to chillax a little bit. The guy pretty much never encountered a heresy or a sin he didn’t feel the need to get all worked up about—which, as you’ll see, got him into quite a bit of trouble.

To Hippolytus’s credit, his theological pedigree was pretty stinkin’ impressive. He had studied under St. Irenaeus, who had studied under St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who had learned theology from—wait for it—St. John the Evangelist. In other words, the guy was only three or four degrees removed from Jesus. His immediate mentor, Irenaeus, was no slouch either, having penned the seminal anti-Gnostic work Against the HeresiesHippolytus, not to be outdone, penned his own polemic, which he called Against ALL the Heresies. (Seriously.) If I had been his agent, I would have encouraged him to narrow his focus a little more; knowing him, he probably would have fired me for that.

Hippolytus also wasn’t wrong that the church had a bit of a heresy problem. The last of the Apostles (that would be St. John again) had died around A.D. 100, and in the century since, people had gotten pretty fast and loose with their Christology. Among other false theologies, modalism—the idea that God doesn’t exist eternally as a Trinity but instead just presents himself as Father, Son, or Spirit, depending on what the occasion calls for—was gaining in prominence. Because of his insistence on the orthodox “Logos doctrine“—also known as “Seriously, guys, just read the freakin’ first chapter of the Gospel of John, I know a guy who knew the author, for cripes’ sake”—Hippolytus frequently butted heads with his bishop, Zephyrinus (who, as the bishop of Rome was, y’know, the pope), who had a habit of being conciliatory to the less-than-orthodox. (Zephyrinus also insisted on communing repentant adulterers, which Hippolytus also had a problem with, because… who knows.)

When Pope Zephyrinus finally passed away in A.D. 217, Hippolytus was convinced the church would do the right thing and elect him pope—after all, who could argue with his impeccably rigid orthodoxy and unyielding moral rigorism? But just like that one kid who thought he was shoo-in for class president because of his straight As, Hippolytus soon got a rude awakening about how politics work. The council elected St. Calixtus I instead, which Hippolytus didn’t like at all—so he more-or-less just declared himself pope. No, seriously—not only did the guy write large chunks of the Western liturgy, he also straight-up invented the concept of an “antipope.” What have you done with your life?

If you’re wondering how someone can just declare himself pope, keep in mind that things in the church were way less formal back then. Christianity was still illegal in the Roman Empire, so churches tended to be secretive and meet in people’s houses—meaning, if you could get people to come worship at your place, well, you were in business. It also helped that the local Roman church was divided down the middle between Greek-speakers and Latin-speakers—and since Calixtus moved primarily in Latin circles and Hippolytus in Greek ones, there really weren’t a lot of people asking questions.

Hippolytus actually managed to keep this no-seriously-I’m-pope-come-worship-at-my-house schtick going, presumably using his cool new liturgy, throughout the reigns of not one, but three actual-for-real popes—Calixtus I, Urban I, and Pontian—and he probably would have kept it up even longer if it hadn’t been for Roman Emperor Maximus Thrax. Around A.D. 235, his imperial majesty decided it was high time he started living up to the unbelievably manly name “Maximus Thrax” by reviving the old Rome-tastic tradition of persecuting Christians. Then he looked around, noticed there were two popes, shrugged, and exiled them both to the silver mines of Sardinia. After all, if persecuting one pope is great, then persecuting two popes is AWESOME.

As it turns out, though, it’s pretty hard to be forced into hard labor with someone and stay mad at him, and so it took Hippolytus and Pontian basically no time at all to get over their differences. Both men agreed to resign (“Except you’re totally not actually resigning, because you’re not a real pope, jerk,” Pontian [probably] added) so that the church could be reunited under the newly elected Pope Fabian, who no doubt had fabulous hair and his own line of romance novels. Meanwhile, the two former popes were martyred, probably because the guards at the labor camp were sick of them complaining about all the silver inhalation–induced brain damage. Hippolytus was apparently executed by being dragged to death by horses, because that’s how his mythological namesake died, and Rome loved nothing more than detached, bourgeois irony.

In any case: For Hippolytus’s tireless defense of the gospel, the Catholic Church eventually named him the patron saint of horses, which seems kind of like a jerk move, but no one asked me, I guess. For  his tireless labor in the silver mines, the Roman Empire was able to keep fueling the fires of meaningless consumerism. And you have Hippolytus to thank if you worship in a Western liturgical setting, or if you attend one of those pretentious, hipstery house-churches, since he pretty much invented both.

You’re welcome.


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