Saints of the Day – Callistus (Callixtus) I, Pope

detail of a bas-relief portrait medallion of Pope Saint Callistus I, date and artist unknown; Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, ItalyArticle

Died c.222; honored as a martyr in Todi, Italy, on August 14. Most of what is known about Callistus comes from untrustworthy sources, such as his arch-opponent. Callistus was a Roman from the Trastevere section of Rome, son of Domitius. His contemporary Saint Hippolytus says that when Callistus, a young Christian slave, was put in charge of a bank by his Christian master Carpophorus, he lost the money deposited with him by other Christians. He fled from Rome but was caught on board a ship off Porto (Portus). To escape capture, he jumped overboard into the sea. He was rescued and taken back to Carpophorus. He was sentenced to the dreaded punishment reserved for slaves – the hand mill. He was released at the request of the creditors, who hoped he might be able to recover some of the money, but was rearrested for fighting in a synagogue when he tried to borrow or collect debts from some Jews. Denounced now as a Christian, Callistus was sentenced to work in the mines of Sardinia. Finally, he was released with other Christians at the request of Marcia, a mistress of Emperor Commodus. His health was so weakened that his fellow Christians sent him to Antium to recuperate and he was given a pension by Pope Victor I.

About 199, Callistus was appointed by Pope Saint Zephyrinus as supervisor of the public Christian burial grounds on the Via Appia (which would come to be called the cemetery of San Callistus). (In its papal crypt most of the bishops of Rome from Zephyrinus to Eutychian, except Cornelius and Callistus, were buried.) He is said to have expanded the cemetery, bringing private portions into communal possession.

He was ordained by Saint Zephyrinus as a deacon and became his friend and advisor. When Zephyrinus died in 217, Callistus was elected pope by popular vote of the Roman people and clergy. Soon thereafter he was denounced by Saint Hippolytus (himself a nominee for the papal seat) for his kindness.

Compassionate towards repentant sinners, Callistus established the practice of the absolution of all repented sins. Saint Hippolytus was especially upset by the pope’s admitting to communion those who had repented for murder, adultery, and fornication. Saint Hippolytus, Tertullian, Novatian, and the Rigorists called Callistus a heretic, claiming that he taught that committing a mortal sin was not sufficient to depose a bishop, that multi- married men could be admitted to the clergy, and that marriages between free women and Christian slaves were legitimate.

This last was Callistus’s resolution of the problem of wealthy Christian women who were unable to find suitable Christian husbands. He saw marriages to Christian slaves as a better alternative than risking excommunication for themselves and their children by marrying pagans.

He was known for his gentleness and forgiveness. Hippolytus also accused him of leniency to heretics, despite the fact that Callistus had excommunicated Sabellius, the leader of the heretics who denied the plurality of the Divine Persons (Monarchianism).

It is possible that Callistus was martyred around 222, perhaps during a popular uprising, but the legend that he was thrown down a well has no authority. He was buried on the Aurelian Way.

The chapel of San Callistus in Trastevere is probably a successor to the one built by the pope on a piece of land adjudged to the Christians by Alexander Severus against some innkeepers – the emperor declared that any religious rites were better than a tavern (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, White)

Saint Callistus is depicted in art wearing a red robe with a tiara (sign of a pope); or being thrown into a well with a millstone around his neck; or with a millstone around his neck (White). Often there is a fountain near him (Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 July 2020. Web. 8 August 2020. <>