Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Stephen, Pope and Martyr

Article

A.D. 257

Saint Stephen was by birth a Roman, and being promoted to holy orders, was made archdeacon of that church under the holy popes and martyrs Saint Cornelius and Saint Lucius. The latter going to martyrdom recommended him to his clergy for his successor. He was accordingly chosen pope on the 3d of May, 253, and sat four years, two months, and twenty-one days. Soon after his election, he was called to put a stop to the havoc which certain wolves, under the name and habit of pastors, threatened to make in the churches of Gaul and Spain. Marcian, bishop of Arles (in which see he seems to have succeeded Saint Regulus, immediate successor of Saint Trophimus), embraced the error of Novatian, and, upon the inhuman maxim of that murderer of souls, refused the communion, that is, absolution, to many penitents even in the article of death. Faustinus, bishop of Lyons, and other Gaulish prelates, sent informations and complaints against him to Saint Stephen and Saint Cyprian: to the first, on account of the superior authority and jurisdiction of his see; to the other, on account of the great reputation of his sanctity, eloquence, and remarkable zeal against the Novatians. Saint Cyprian having no jurisdiction over Arles, could do no more than join the Gaulish Catholics in stirring up the zeal of Saint Stephen to exert his authority, and not suffer an obstinate heretic to disturb the peace of those churches to the destruction of souls. This he did by a letter to Saint Stephen, in which he says, “It is necessary that you despatch away ample letters to our fellow-bishops in Gaul, that they no longer suffer the obstinate Marcian to insult our college. Write to that province, and to the people of Arles, that Marcian being excommunicated, a successor may be provided for his see. Acquaint us, if you please, who is made bishop of Arles in the room of Marcian, that we may know to whom we are to send letters of communion, and to direct our brethren.” Though the letters of Saint Stephen on this head have not reached us, we cannot doubt but by his order every thing here mentioned was carried into execution; for, in the ancient list of the bishops of Arles published by Mabillon, the name of Marcian does not occur.

An affair of no less consequence happened in Spain. Basilides, bishop of Merida, and Martialis, bishop of Leon and Astorga, had fallen into the crime of the Libellatici, that is, to save their lives in the persecution had purchased for money libels of safety from the persecutors as if they had sacrificed to idols. For this and other notorious crimes Martialis was deposed in a synod, and Basilides was so intimidated that he voluntarily resigned his see. Sabinus was placed in that of Basilides, and Felix in that of Martialis. Basilides soon after repented of what he had done, went to Rome, and imposing upon Saint Stephen, was admitted by him to communion as a colleague in the episcopal Order; which was the more easy as no sentence of deposition had passed in his case. Returning into Spain with letters of the pope in his favour, he was received in the same rank by some of the bishops; and Martialis, encouraged by his example, presumed to claim the same privilege. The Spanish bishops consulted Saint Cyprian what they ought to do with regard to the two delinquents, and that learned prelate answered: that persons notoriously guilty of such crimes were, by the canons, utterly disqualified for presiding in the Church of Christ, and offering sacrifices to God; that the election and ordination of their two successors having been regular and valid, they could not be rescinded or made null; and lastly, that the pope’s letters were obreptitious, and obtained by fraud and a suppression of the truth, consequently were null. “Basilides,” says he, “going to Rome, there imposed upon our colleague Stephen, living at a distance, and ignorant of the truth that was concealed from him. All this only tends to accumulate the crimes of Basilides, rather than to abolish the remembrance of them; since, to his former account, hereby is added the guilt of endeavouring to circumvent the pastors of the Church. He lays the blame not on him who had been imposed upon, but Basilides, who fraudulently gained “access to him.” We know no more of this affair; but cannot doubt that the pope (whose jurisdiction none of the parties disclaimed) was better informed, and the proceedings of the Spanish bishops confirmed.

The controversy concerning the rebaptization of heretics gave Saint Stephen much more trouble. It was the constant doctrine of the Catholic Church, that baptism given in the evangelical words, that is, in the name of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, is valid, though it be conferred by a heretic. This was the practice even of the African Church till Agrippinus, bishop of Carthage, in the close of the second century, changed it, fifty years before Saint Cyprian, as Saint Austin and Vincent of Lerins testify; and Saint Cyprian himself only appeals to a council held by Agrippinus for the origin of his pretended tradition. Saint Cyprian, in three African councils, decreed, according to this principle, that baptism given by a heretic is always null and invalid; which decision he founds in this false principle, that no one can receive the Holy Ghost by the hands of one who does not himself possess him in his soul. Which false reasoning would equally prove that no one in mortal sin can validly administer any sacrament; but Christ is the principal, though invisible minister in the administration of the sacraments; and though both faith and the state of grace be required in him who confers any sacrament, not to incur the guilt of sacrilege; yet neither is required for the validity. Saint Cyprian sums up all the arguments which he thought might serve his purpose in his letter to Jubaianus, written in 256. Many bishops of Cilicia, Cappadocia, and Phrygia, having at their head Firmilian, the learned bishop of Cæsarea, and Helenus of Tarsus, fell in with the Africans, and maintained the same error. All the partisans of this practice falsely imagined it to be a point, not of faith, which is every where invariable, but of mere discipline, in which every church might be allowed to follow its own rule or law. Saint Cyprian and Firmilian carried on the dispute with too great warmth, the latter especially, who spoke of Saint Stephen in an unbecoming manner. If such great and holy men could be betrayed into anger, and biassed by prepossession, how much ought we sinners to watch over our hearts against passion, and mistrust our own judgment! The respect which is due to their name and virtue obliges us to draw a veil over this fault, as Saint Austin often puts us in mind, who, speaking of Firmilian, says: “I will not touch upon what he let fall in his anger against Stephen.” The pope, who saw the danger which threatened the Church under the colour of zeal for its purity and unity, and an aversion from heresy, opposed himself as a rampart for the house of God, declaring that no innovation is to be allowed, but that the tradition of the Church, derived from the apostles, is to be inviolably maintained. He even threatened to cut off the patrons of the novelty from the communion of the Church. But Saint Dionysius of Alexandria interceded by letters, and procured a respite, as Eusebius mentions. 6

Saint Stephen suffered himself patiently to be traduced as a favourer of heresy in approving heretical baptism, being insensible to all personal injuries, not doubting but those great men, who, by a mistaken zeal, were led astray, would, when the heat of disputing should have subsided, calmly open their eyes to the truth. Thus by his zeal he preserved the integrity of faith, and by his toleration and forbearance saved many souls from the danger of shipwreck. “Stephen,” says Saint Austin, “thought of excommunicating them; but being endued with the bowels of holy charity, he judged it better to abide in union. The peace of Christ overcame in their hearts.” Of this contest, the judicious Vincent of Lerins gives the following account: “When all cried out against the novelty, and the priests every where opposed it in proportion to every one’s zeal, then Pope Stephen, of blessed memory, bishop of the apostolic see, stood up, with his other colleagues against it, but he in a signal manner above the rest, thinking it fitting, I believe, that he should go beyond them as much by the ardour of his faith as he was raised above them by the authority of his see. In his letter to the church of Africa he thus decrees: ‘Let no innovation be introduced; but let that be observed which is handed down to us by tradition.’ The prudent and holy man understood that the rule of piety admits nothing new, but that all things are to be delivered down to our posterity with the same fidelity with which they were received; and that it is our duty to follow religion, and not make religion follow us; for the proper characteristic of a modest and sober Christian is, not to impose his own conceits upon posterity, but to make his own imaginations bend to the wisdom of those that went before him. What then was the issue of this grand affair, but that which is usual?—antiquity kept possession, and novelty was exploded.”

Saint Stephen died on the 2nd of August, 257, and was buried in the cemetery of Calixtus. He is styled a martyr in the Sacramentary of Saint Gregory the Great, and in the ancient Martyrologies which bear the name of Saint Jerom. The persecution of Valerian was raised in the year 257, and in it Saint Stephen could not fail to be sought out as the principal victim. The acts of his martyrdom deserve some regard, as Tillemont observes. They are esteemed genuine by Baronius and Berti. This latter shows the exceptions made to their authority by Basnage, to be altogether founded in mistakes. These acts relate that the saint was beheaded by the pursuivants whilst he was sitting in his pontifical chair, which was buried with his body, and is still shown as stained with his blood. The relics were translated to Pisa in 1682, and are there venerated in the great church which bears his name. But his head is kept with great respect at Cologn.

Not only bishops, but all superiors, are Christ’s vicegerents, and are bound to be mindful of their charge, for which they will be demanded a rigorous account. How many such live as if they had only their own souls to take care of; yet think themselves good Christians? Few have the light, the courage, the charity, and the zeal necessary for such a charge; and many through sloth, self-love, or a passion for pleasure, company, vanity, and the world, neglect various obligations of their state. It will be a false plea for such to allege at the last day, that they have kept well their own vineyard, whilst they have suffered others under their care to be overgrown with briars and weeds.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Stephen, Pope and Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 4 July 2014. Web. 23 August 2017. <>