Sunday, August 13, 2023

Ss Hippolytus and Cassian: One Confusion... and Another

The thirteenth of August is the feast of St Hippolytus, an officer of the guards in the prison where St Lawrence was held, whom the latter converted to Christianity. He is said to have taken the body of Lawrence for burial; reproved for this by the Emperor Decius, and threatened with torture and death, he answered “May I merit to be a likeness of the blessed martyr Lawrence, whom you have dared to name with your polluted mouth.” After torture, he was killed by being torn apart by wild horses.

The Saint Hippolytus triptych by Dietric Bouts the Elder, ca. 1470.
Roman Breviaries printed in the period immediately before the Tridentine reform add to the Matins lessons of his feast the story of St Concordia, an elderly member of his household who had been his nurse. When threatened with punishment alongside Hippolytus for her Christian faith, she replied on behalf of the household, “We much prefer to die virtuously with our Lord than to live without virtue.” At this, the man in charge of arresting them said, “Slaves as a class cannot be corrected without torture”, and had her beaten to death with lead weights.

The story of Hippolytus is normally dismissed as a fabrication by modern scholars on the grounds that his manner of death, reported by the poet Prudentius (348 - 405/13 ca.), is the same as that of the Greek mythological character Hippolytus, the son of Theseus who was dragged to death by the horses of his chariot. It seems not to have occurred to any of the modern skeptics that the persecutors might very well have been inspired by his name to choose this manner of killing him, in imitation of the mythological story.

However, it is certainly true that there is much confusion about his history; when Pope St Damasus I (366-84) placed an epitaph upon his tomb recounting his martyrdom, he stated that he himself “relied on purely oral tradition, which he does not guarantee: ‘Damasus tells these things which he has heard; it is Christ who maketh proof of them.’ ” (Loeb Classical Library, The Poems of Prudentius, p. 304, footnote) The editors of the Tridentine breviary, aware of this difficulty, reduced his feast to a commemoration on the day within the octave of St Lawrence, greatly simplifying the nine lessons given for him and Concordia in earlier editions.
The cathedral of St Cassian in Imola, Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Vanni Lazzari, CC BY-SA 4.0)
At the same time, they joined to his feast another Saint who was not traditionally venerated at Rome, but who, like Lawrence and Hippolytus, is celebrated by Prudentius in his collection of poems about famous martyrs, “On the Crowns.” St Cassian was a school-teacher in the town of Imola in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, about 175 miles to the north of Rome. He was arrested as a Christian, and on refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods, was sentenced to be stabbed to death by the pens of his own students. (These would be the sharp metallic instruments called “stylus” by the Romans, commonly used by school-boys to cut lines in tablets of wax.) Prudentius visited his tomb while passing through Imola on the way to Rome, and describes a picture of the martyrdom which was painted over it.

The article on St Cassian in the revised Butler’s Live of the Saints contains the following statement. “The stylus-prodding by schoolboys is probably a reminiscence of an incident in Apuleius (see P. Franchi de’ Cavalieri, Hagiographica, p. 131) and bears a more than suspicious resemblance to the torture of St Mark of Arethusa.” But Fr de’ Cavalieri’s book contains no such reference to Apuleius or his novel The Golden Ass, and explicitly states that there is no meaningful parallel between the martyrdoms of Cassian and Mark of Arethusa. He does, however, consider the story as told to Prudentius untrustworthy, on the grounds that a Roman magistrate would not likely order a death sentence to be carried out by someone other than an official executioner, much less by school-age boys.

More recent scholarship, however, has argued in favor of the truth of Prudentius’ account. A paper by Filippo Briguglio of the University of Bologna finds several things in the poet’s account that argue in favor of its historicity, and forensic analysis of Cassian’s cranium shows that the wounds are consistent with the size of a typical stylus of the era. So we may very well have yet another example of the hagiographical skeptics hoisted by their own petard.

On the other hand, it is true that a Passion of St Cassian written in the ninth century unhistorically makes him the evangelizer and first bishop of Sabiona in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy, exiled to Imola and constrained to work as a school-teacher. This is why this 17th-century statue of him in the diocesan museum of Bressanone, to which the see of Sabiona was transferred ca. 1000 AD, shows him wearing a mitre. (Photo by Nicola de’ Grandi.)

On the calendar of the post-Conciliar Rite, the Hippolytus of the St Lawrence legend has been replaced by another martyr of the same name, celebrated jointly with Pope St Pontian, who reigned from 230-35. This change was made on the basis of a very ancient list (354 AD) of the places where various martyrs are buried, called the “Depositio Martyrum – the laying-to-rest of the martyrs” has the following entry for August 13: “Ypoliti in Tiburtina, et Pontiani in Callisti – Hippolytus, on the via Tiburtina, and Pontian in (the cemetery) of Callixtus.”

This Hippolytus is the Roman priest who is said to have rebelled against Pope St Callixtus I for his moral laxity in readmitting to Communion those who had committed serious sins after baptism. After setting himself up as an anti-Pope, he was reconciled with Callixtus’ successor-but-one Pontian, and exiled together with him to Sardinia, where they both died; the manner of their death is uncertain. The entry in the Depositio Martyrum refers to when Pontian’s successor-but-one, Fabian, brought their bodies back from the island and interred them in two different Roman cemeteries.

This is the same Hippolytus to whom the so-called Apostolic Tradition is erroneously attributed, the document which distantly forms the basis of the post-Conciliar Rite’s Second Eucharistic prayer, and the drastic revision of the rites of ordination. When the post-Conciliar rite was created, it was believed (mostly in good faith) that Hippolytus had written the Apostolic Tradition to preserve the older, and to his view, more authentic liturgical traditions of the Roman Church, against the innovations introduced by his theological opponents, especially Callixtus. Of course, it is now known (indeed, it has been known for almost fifty years) that this story is completely untrue, and that the so-called Apostolic Tradition has nothing to do with the historical Hippolytus, and is not a record of the earliest liturgical customs of the Church of Rome. (See “Hippolytus and the Apostolic Tradition: Recent Research and Commentary” by Fr John F. Baldovin, SJ, in Theological Studies 64 (2003))

There is more than a little irony here. The creators of the post-Conciliar calendar, eager and over-eager to remove anything that smacks of the legendary from the Church’s prayer, replaced the Hippolytus to whom there was an authentic tradition of devotion, going back to Damasus and Prudentius, with another to whom there was no such tradition. At the same time, they relegated Cassian of Imola to local calendars as a Saint whose “cultus does not belong to the Roman tradition.” Meanwhile, their cohorts on some of the other subcommittees replaced the authentic tradition of some of the Roman Church’s oldest and most important prayers with novelties based on legends, and texts that do not belong to the Roman tradition.

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