Bible and Life magazine on the Mass readings for the feast of St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus are meaningful especially these days. These two saints died together in exile during the persecution in the 3rd century. Yesterday was their feast day.
In the meditation, the writer mentions how on one occasion he was talking to a fellow priest about the future of the church in Korea. It was a heated discussion with raised voices that ended awkwardly. For some time they never made contact. Later they met at a retreat they both were making. In the discussion on church matters, both different in their approach but very much together in their love and concern for the church, made up for their quarrel.
Korea does not have the kind of church conflicts exposed in the way other countries are experiencing. The progressive and conservative dynamics of much of the Catholic world are managed rather charitably.
St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus were in conflict on what to do with sinners who wanted to return to the church, these included especially those who gave in to the demands of the Romans and sacrificed to the pagan gods to save their lives. Hippolytus thought their sin was so great they could not return.
During the pontificates of popes who preceded Pontian, Hippolytus left the community of the Roman Church and had himself elected antipope by his small band of followers. He is considered the first of the antipopes in history. (An antipope is a person in opposition to the legitimately elected Pope, makes a significant attempt to occupy the position of Bishop of Rome and leader of the Catholic Church)
The Church at that time was divided into two camps: those who allowed such Christians to return, after a period of penance and those who believed that their sin was so grave that they could never return. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was not fully developed, a reason for the difference of opinion.
Pontian was among those who were open to their return. Hippolytus took the firm stand that such return was impossible, putting himself in open 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 we should reflect upon in our own age. While the differences within the Church raise important questions and may even pose great challenges, they must never lead to divisions or worse.
Pope Pontian was elected in 230 and was able to reconcile with Hippolytus and restore unity to the Church. At the restart of the persecution of the Christians, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia, where they both died working in the mines. Before his arrest, Pontian stepped down from his role as pope so that the Christian community could select another leader in his absence. Here we have two saints: the first antipope and the first pope to resign, whose love for the church moved them to think more of the church than themselves.