Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
Evaristus now took the helm. Of him it is recorded that he was born in Bethlehem of Jewish parentage and that he founded the parochial system, dividing Rome into parishes. In the third year of his office he celebrated the hundredth year since the Birth of Christ. One full century since the Birth at Bethlehem and sixty-six years since Peter had preached the first sermon. To be a Christian still meant death but nevertheless the teachings of the Nazarene had spread to, and sometimes beyond, all corners of the huge Empire. Despite the terrors of persecution a disciplined priesthood was administering to a laity that was formed of many races and different tongues yet which was bound together with a unity stronger than the command of any Caesar, the bond of common faith. And it was about this
time, this first turning of a century since the birth of its Founder, that the Church received the name by which it is now known. From the pen of the great bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius, came the significant and historical words: Catholic Church.
Trajan was then the Roman Emperor. History has judged him to be an able ruler and possessed of high character. There is no doubt that under his rule the Empire prospered yet from the first he frowned upon the Christians, regarding them as misguided fanatics who were troublesome to the civic power and as such should be stamped out. This he endeavoured to do by giving impetus to the Third General Persecution amongst whose victims were St. Ignatius and St. Simeon of Jerusalem. The persecution failed in its objective and Trajan, conqueror of Dacia and brilliant soldier and administrator, was defeated. However, he allowed no feeling of chagrin to drive him into angry excesses. He continued to persecute but eventually showed less severity and at no time of his reign can it be claimed that his actions were characterized by the murderous brutality of his predecessors. Writing to his Legate, Pliny the Younger, who had appealed to him for instructions he said "They (the Christians) are not to be sought out, but if accused and convicted they must be punished." In other words he was leaving the matter entirely to the discretion of Pliny. Evaristus died during this reign in the year 105 and although the exact circumstances of his death are not known tradition counts him as one of the martyrs.
St. Alexander, a native Roman, came next, presiding until 115 when he was beheaded and his body buried in the catacombs. Little is known of him save that he is credited with the inauguration of the institution of holy water. Of his successor, Sixtus, we are told even less. He was a Roman; his rule lasted ten years and he was followed by
[paragraph continues] Telesphorus, a Greek whose pontificate (to 136) was disturbed by a series of grave heresies. It is not within the province of this limited work to enter into descriptions of the formidably numerous heresies and schisms which have troubled the Church from its founding. A great number of volumes would be needed for such a task but in passing it can be said that time has proven that the results of schism have always been the same. Severed from the fount of their beginning they inevitably lose energy within themselves and so gradually perish.
Telesphorus was well equipped to use measures, both of authority and argument, necessary to combat the heresies of his day. Previous to his election his had been the meditative and strictly ordered life of a desert anchorite. Evidence of this early life of penance and fasting is discernible in his act of taking the old customs of Lent and molding them into one definite rule. Another of his inaugurations is that of Midnight Mass at Christmas. In his time also was addressed to the Emperor the first Christian Apology. This document, written by Quadratus, a disciple of the Apostles, aimed to explain the position of the Christians but it had no immediate effect for their relief. Christianity was still a crime against the State and as such was punishable by death. Hadrian had succeeded Trajan and, if anything, was even less severe than that ruler; nevertheless the law remained unaltered. It is not difficult to understand the official Roman viewpoint. By this time the pattern of the Empire had apparently attained perfection. Never before had it, or any other country, been so prosperous or powerful. Yet the Christians proposed to effect a complete social change. They talked of the brotherhood of man and to the Emperors this theory was not only ridiculous and blasphemous, but treasonable as well.
Persecution continued and in one of the periodic raids
[paragraph continues] Telesphorus was captured and despatched to his martyrdom. A few years before his death the Jews at Jerusalem made their final desperate rebellion against Roman rule and for a last time in history the ancient ramshorn, the Shofar, called the Jewish people, as a nation, to arms. But, as Titus had ruthlessly suppressed their fathers only sixty-five years before, so did Hadrian again, destroying completely whatever had been left from or built since the first siege. The ancient city was now no more. Its residents were either killed or banished from the sight even of the ruins, upon which a Roman colony called Elia Capitolina was formed.
Hyginus, of Greek birth, was the ninth Pope, presiding for about four years and principally remembered for his regulation of minor clerical orders. He was followed by Pius and of him history tells nothing except the fact of his name and that his pontificate lasted from 140 to 155. After him came a Syrian, one Anicetus, who ruled eleven years, during which time there arose the great argument with the Eastern Church as to the day which should be celebrated as Easter. In Rome it was the Sunday following the fourteenth Nisan (i.e. the fourteenth day after the March moon). In the East it was the actual day of the fourteenth Nisan. Polycarp, able Bishop of Smyrna, tried to urge the latter usage on Rome but Anicetus remained steadfast to the custom that had begun with Peter. Great controversy was waged between Bishop and Pope but the Pope did not make it a question of papal authority and the Bishop had the good sense not to suggest or cause a schismatic break. The argument was to continue until finally settled, in favour of the Western Church, at the Council of Nicaea in 325. And even after then we find the Celtic monks disputing the Easter question with the Roman missionaries in Britain. Other things there were besides this vexatious altercation that Anicetus found to disapprove of in ecclesiastical
ranks. He accused his clergy of being over-considerate of their personal appearance, and in a series of regulations expressed his censure and wishes. As the Church had grown, so of course had the priesthood; and with such a quickly spreading organization, still forced to the shroud of secrecy, it was easy for unauthorized changes to creep into the liturgy, particularly when that liturgy was not yet recorded in written form. Soter who succeeded Anicetus in 166 turned a vigilant eye on these errors and insisted on the correct and orthodox observance of all sacred customs. In searching for such abuses he came in contact with many of the poorer Christian communities and these, it is recorded, he made it a special mission to assist.
Marcus Aurelius the Philosopher was Emperor during this pontificate but despite his philosophy he displayed less tolerance than had been shown during the previous reigns. Persecution was intensified and remained so into the time of Pope Eleutherius who officiated for fifteen years. Both in Rome and in the provinces Christian blood ran freely and with terrible persistence. No resistance was offered but in this generation there were not lacking learned Christians who could utilize the potency of words, in the phrasing of philosophy which the Emperor so admired, and so defend their faith with logic as well as vigor and courage. But as far as Marcus Aurelius, and his son, the despicable Commodus, were concerned the Apologies bore no weight and the persecutions were continued. And with the same sequel as earlier times. Each martyrdom served as a beacon to attract droves of converts, the Church continued to grow, and the propaganda of the faith unceasingly went on. And sorely harassed as Pope Eleutherius must have been he yet found time to formulate plans for the conversion of such far-off places as Britain.