A pope often caught in the middle

Controversy over whether certain sinners could ever be forgiven

St. Stephen I served only three years as pope, but made decisions that still apply.

This third-century saint was born in Rome. After his ordination, he served as archdeacon to two martyr-popes: St. Cornelius; then St. Lucius, who nominated Stephen as his successor shortly before his martyrdom.

Stephen was elected pope May 3, 254. He was quickly drawn into the Novatian controversy — could a baptized person who committed adultery, apostasy or murder be forgiven and allowed to receive Communion?

Marcian, the bishop of Arles, France, sided with Novatianism and refused to absolve even the dying. Several bishops of Gaul wrote to Stephen and St. Cyprian, the influential bishop of Carthage, asking that he correct Marcian.

Cyprian wrote to Stephen urging him to excommunicate Marcian and name a new bishop. While we do not have Stephen’s response, he must have sided with Cyprian because Marcian’s name is not on the ancient lists of bishops of Arles.

Meanwhile in Spain, two bishops, Basilides of Merida and Martialis of Leon, had saved their lives by buying documents saying they had sacrificed to idols. Martialis was condemned at a synod and deposed. Basilides resigned and new bishops were chosen.

Basilides repented and went to Rome where Stephen forgave him. He returned with a letter from the pope and some Spanish bishops recognized him as a bishop. Martialis claimed he too should be restored to office, prompting Spanish bishops to appeal to Cyprian. He said canon law forbade them from church office and that Stephen did not know the facts when he acted. That ruling stood.

Stephen also had to decide if baptisms by heretics were valid. He said that they were and that it had been church tradition until it was forbidden in the church in Africa at the end of the second century. This time, Cyprian was on the opposite side. Stephen ruled that baptism in the name of the Trinity is valid, that Christ is the principal minister of the sacraments, and that the validity and efficacy of the sacraments do not depend on the human minister being in the state of grace.

He also decreed the use of vestments at Mass and that priests not celebrate Mass in street clothes nor wear vestments in the streets. (What the priests had worn at Mass was identical to what the laity wore.)


Sources: “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”; saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”


Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.

St. Stephen I

When: When: 257

Where: Rome

What: Pope

Feast: Aug. 2