(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Stephen, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
Saint Stephen, Bishop of Rome
With the birth of Christianity came the New Testament, the sacred Gospel written in Greek, so that not only was knowledge of the Greek tongue essential to those bishops of Rome who were popes, but many of the early popes actually were Greeks. St. Stephen, who succeeded Lucius I, was of Roman birth but of Greek ancestry, like so many others in the hierarchy, and was fluent in Greek above other tongues he managed to master. Many citizens of Rome never lost touch with their ethnic backgrounds. They retained the language of their country of origin, particularly if their background was Hellenic, since Hellenism and Christianity were closely tied in the early centuries. Although paganism was the dominant force of the Roman Empire, there were more Greeks than Romans tossed to the lions in the arena, and many of those who were called Romans were of varying ethnic origins.
Stephen was a third-century priest in the harassed Christian community of Rome. He served the Church with such distinction that he was made the eternal city’s bishop and, therefore, pope of the Western sector of Christianity. He combined the qualities of intelligence, resourcefulness and dedication with compassion and courage. These were qualities without which no Christian could assume a posiiton of leadership in the year 252, the year he ascended to Christianity’s most prestigious post. In his short reign of five years he was to encounter more difficulties within the Church than outside it. As a result, his tenure was marked with more critical decisions than some popes have been required to make in spans of office far greater than his.
In the formative third century of Christianity, a profusion of well-intentioned ideas seemed to sprout from all corners. This brought one controversy after another in a parade of propositions that did more harm than good and, more often than not, smacked of heresy. On the one hand, Stephen displayed compassion by reinstating two Spanish bishops who had been deposed because they had supposedly “lapsed” in the face of persecution. On the other hand, he took issue with the great St. Cyprian of Carthage on several matters of dogma and theology.
Through the letters of the Carthaginian St. Cyprian, whose influence was not much less than that of Stephen, it was determined that the two disagreed on three controversies that raged at the time. But, to the credit of both of the spiritual giants, matters did not get out of hand to weaken a Church already experiencing growing pains. St. Stephen refused to let internal pressures influence his decision to keep Marcianus of Arles in office in spite of a clamor for his removal because of his sympathies with Novatianism.
The major issue over which the Roman and African sectors clashed was the practice of baptizing heretics. This led to a compromise which found the African sector favoring rebaptizing under certain conditions. St. Cyprian favored this view, but Stephen opposed the rebaptizing under any circumstances. He closed the door on the entire issue, so that when he was petitioned for an audience on the matter by other bishops, he refused to discuss it altogether. He went so far as to brand as heretical those bishops who countenanced the practice, and he threatened to excommunicate the Asia Minor and African bishops, including St. Cyprian himself. This never came about, thanks largely to the friendship of Cyprian and Stephen, both of whom recognized that unity was of utmost importance if the Church were to continue effectively. The Church was of primary importance to Cyprian, who is famous for having said that “He cannot have God for his Father who had not the Church for his Mother.” Stephen was in hearty agreement with this, and their differences were not allowed to become magnified to the point of an open breach.
Stephen remained firm on the issue primarily because he believed that once a person had been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, there could not be a “rebaptism.” The pagans undoubtedly looked upon this friction among Christians with considerable amusement; but when the resolute Stephen assured orderliness and the church structure had been undamaged, a new wave of persecution began under the Emperor Valerian. Because Stephen was the most envied, even his high station could not save him. He was put to death on August 3, 257.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.