If there is one figure difficult to understand, it is Pope Callixtus. His was a short pontificate of only five years (217-222) and the Catholic Church has always venerated him as a martyr. Although he is considered one of the most significant popes of the third century, he led a very troubled life.
The memorial on October 14th in the current Roman Missal reads as follows: “Callixtus, a former slave, was pope from 218 to 222. His name is linked to the first official cemetery of the Church of Rome, on the Appian Way. He faced internal conflicts within the Christian community and was martyred in Rome, on the site of the church named after him. His burial in the cemetery of Calepodius, on the Via Aurelia, is recorded on October 14th in the Depositio martyrum (336).”
This information has been accurately compiled, but to understand what it means that Callixtus “faced internal conflicts within the Christian community,” we must turn to 1851 when the anti-heretical work in 10 books, Philosophumena or Confutation (Èlenchos) of All Heresies, was first published under the name of Origen. Some parts of books IX and X contain a violent attack against Callixtus, and these details have led scholars first to discard the attribution of the work to Origen, and then to attribute its authorship to Hippolytus, a Roman presbyter of that time, known to have provoked a schism, which eventually ended with a reconciliation. Today, however, the attribution to Hippolytus of the Philosophumena or Èlenchos (henceforth El) has been called into question. We will be careful not to enter into this complicated debate and will indicate the author, as some do, simply as “the author of El.”
In this work, Callixtus is never designated as bishop, but always as “this Callixtus,” although it is clear that he is the bishop of Rome. His life story is described in a venomous manner in its various stages: a slave by birth, he opened a bank on behalf of a wealthy imperial official, but brought it to bankruptcy; condemned to the mines and pardoned through the intervention of Pope Victor, he managed to become one of the Roman clergy, making a significant career there, becoming bishop of the city. For the author of El, in reality Callixtus was nothing more than “an impostor and a scoundrel” (IX, 12,15), “a man crafty in evil and versatile in deceit, who ardently aspired to the throne of the episcopate” (IX, 11,1). Moreover, the author of El makes serious accusations against him, both on the doctrinal level, calling him a “heretic,” and on the pastoral, as if Callixtus had inaugurated a rather lax practice, with the intention of procuring followers for his Church, which he wanted to call “catholic.”