August: Will the real Hippolytus please stand up?

Saints with Funny Names

Fresco of St. Hippolytus, martyr, in the Church of St. Lawrence at Lucina, Rome. Photo: Zvonimir Atletic/Shutterstock

Remember the 1990s when Ashley, Ashleigh, and Ashlee all ended up in the same kindergarten? That’s what it was like to research St. Hippolytus. I found two different Hippolytuses who claim the feast day, Aug. 13 and a third thrown in on Aug. 22 for good measure. And they were all third century Roman martyrs!

The one who gets the most press is St. Hippolytus, the antipope. And no wonder. He was the first antipope ever to confuse the Church. Later he became the only antipope ever to be canonized. His story goes that he had a disagreement with the pope about how the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity was being explained. Actually his understanding of the Trinity was the correct one, that there are three distinct persons in one God, and he left us many writings with precise wording explaining that and other dense theological doctrines.

He also thought the Church should be harsher in her treatment of apostates. Back in the days of persecution some Christians wimped out when threatened with being boiled in oil (I don’t know why). They gave up the faith and saved their lives but were really good Christians at heart. Whether to let them back into the Christian community became a burning question. The Church decided to do the Christian thing and forgive them. Due to these issues Hippolytus decided he would make a better pope.

His schism lasted for about 20 years, outlasting two popes. During the reign of a third, under the persecution of the Roman emperor Maximinus Thrax (who died in 238) he was sentenced to work in the mines. As it happened, his cellmate was the real pope, St. Pontian. Pontian’s humility rubbed off on Hippolytus and he renounced his claim to the papacy. The pair became friends and fellow martyrs. The feast of this Hippolytus is on the western calendar on Aug. 13.

Then there is this other Hippolytus, who seems to be an entirely different person. This guy was a martyr, too, but under the Roman emperor Valerian (who died in 260). This Hippolytus was the chief pagan prison guard in Rome. By providence he met St. Lawrence the deacon. You remember him. He’s the one they grilled — by which I don’t mean interrogated but literally grilled over a flame.

“Turn me over,” he reportedly said to his torturers, “I’m done on this side.”

Hippolytus was converted through him. St. Lawrence died on Aug. 10 and Hippolytus buried him. The emperor found out and confronted him. He dressed him in his soldier’s garb and demanded that he prove his loyalty by offering sacrifices to the gods. His only response was, “I am a Christian.” The emperor had him beaten with rods and also dragged his foster mother, St. Concordia, into it. She was beaten and killed and so was everyone else in Hippolytus’ household. Hippolytus himself was tied to wild horses and dragged to his death just days later on Aug. 13.

Just to throw another Hippolytus at you, our saint was executed exactly the same way the fictional Hippolytus of Greek myth was. The name Hippolytus means “wild horses.” OK, so is there some blur between reality and fiction going on? I don’t think so. No doubt the emperor knew the myth, since the Romans got most of their myths from the Greeks, whom they had conquered. I’d bet money on it that the emperor chose to re-enact the execution of St. Hippolytus in the style of the myth. If you’ve ever read about the Roman emperors, they were pretty creative in their perversions. This Hippolytus is on the Eastern calendar on Aug. 13.

St. Hippolytus No. 3 is Hippolytus of Porto, who seems to have been drowned in the port of well, Porto in 236. He was also commemorated in August but apparently devotion to him went out with the tide in 1969.

So now it’s time for our celebrity panel to vote. Which one is the real Hippolytus?

Hippolytus, the antipope and friend of St. Pontian?

Hippolytus, friend of St. Lawrence pictured with St. Concordia?

Hippolytus of Porto? Absent on picture day.

“The Death of Hippolytus” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). Photo: Public Domain

Hippolytus of Greek myth? Originator of the phrase, “Wild horses couldn’t drag it from me.”

Disqualified! (Buzzer sound.)

Will the real St. Hippolytus please stand up?

Or beam down?

Or at least send roses?

Sometimes with saints who lived that long ago, the details tend to run away like so many wild horses scattering saints into relics. In such cases the important thing is that so many Christians braved all for love of Our Lord. He knows each one by name and marks every hair on their heads.

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