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. He 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.
On Aug. 6, 258, while the pope was seated in his episcopal chair addressing the congregation at a liturgical service in the private, and presumably safe, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
Sixtus II appears in one of the most famous and most often copied and reproduced paintings in the world, Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna.”
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.