Saints for Our Times: April celebrates the lives of several ‘saintly popes’

By Mary Lou Gibson


There have been 266 popes in the Catholic Church with Pope Francis being the 266th successor of Peter ( Of this group, a total of 78 popes are regarded as saints and another 16 are on the way to sainthood.

The month of April features the feast days of some of these saintly popes. They include Sixtus I, Celestine I, Julius I, Martin I, Leo IX, Caius and Pius V.

St. Sixtus I (also known as Xystus) was the bishop of Rome and his papacy lasted about 10 years from 117 to 128. His name suggests that he may have been of Greek origin. Much of what is known about him is unreliable although most biographers agree that he was responsible for passing three important ordinances.

Rosemary Guiley lists them in the "Encyclopedia of Saints:" 1) Only sacred ministers would be allowed to touch the sacred vessels; 2) Bishops needed Apostolic Letters before they could be received by their dioceses; and 3) after the Preface in the Mass, the priest should recite the Sanctus with the people. His feast day is April 6.

St. Celestine I was pope from 422 to 432. He spent much of his papacy working against the heresies of Pelagius and Nestorius and firmly upholding the ancient canons. Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will can still choose good or evil without special Divine aid. Nestorianism was the doctrine advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople that emphasized the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus.

Celestine also strongly opposed the Novatians in Rome who held the strict view to refuse readmission to Communion of baptized Christians who had denied their faith under pressures of persecution.

Rosa Giorgi ("Saints – A Year in Faith and Art") credits Celestine with writing numerous pastoral letters and the "Decretals," which gave shape to canon law. Perhaps his most lasting legacy rests with his directive to St. Patrick to go and evangelize the Irish in about 430. His feast day is April 6, or April 8 in the Greek Church.

St. Julius I was a native of Rome and was pope from 337-352 when there was much turmoil in the early church when bishops were accusing other bishops of heresy. Guiley writes that most of his pontificate concerned St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who was forced into exile. The opposition to Athanasius was fueled by Eusebius of Nicomedia, a staunch supporter of the Arian controversy which divided the church before the Council of Nicaea to after the Council of Constantinople.

Julius supported Athanasius against his rivals and helped him return to Alexandria. His letter on this matter is considered one of the most important pronouncements of the Roman see. John Delaney writes in the "Dictionary of Saints" that the Council of Sardica declared Julius’s action was correct and any deposed bishop had the right of appeal to the pope in Rome. It was also during Julius’s papacy that the catalogs of saints’ feast days came into use. His feast day is April 12.

St. Martin I’s papacy got off to a bad start in 649 when he had himself consecrated without waiting for the imperial confirmation of Constans II as was the custom. This together with his declaration against Monothelitism (the heresy that held to only one divine will) put in place events that would end with his death in 654. Martin was supported in his decree against Monothelitism by bishops in Africa, England and Spain.

After Martin convened a synod at the Lateran Basilica that affirmed the doctrine of two wills in Christ (human and divine), Emperor Constans sent soldiers to arrest him and declared Martin deposed. Richard McBrien writes in "Lives of the Saints" that Martin was sent by ship to Constantinople and placed in solitary confinement. His conditions in prison were brutal. According to David Farmer writing in the "Oxford Dictionary of Saints," Martin was not allowed any water for washing for 47 days and the food he was given was inedible and made him sick.

Paul Burns writes in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" that while Martin was in prison, the churchmen in Rome did nothing to secure his release, but went ahead and elected a new pope while he was still alive.

Martin was condemned to death for treason, but his sentence was commuted to exile; he was taken to Chersoneus in the Crimea where he died of starvation and abuse on Sept. 16, 655. He is the last pope to be recognized as a martyr. His feast is April 13 on the General Roman Calendar.

St. Leo IX was selected to succeed Pope Damasus II in 1049 with the support of his relative Emperor Henry III. He had been bishop of Toul for 20 years and was known as an energetic reformer. He arrived in Rome for his consecration barefoot and dressed as a pilgrim. McBrien writes that Leo accepted his nomination to the papacy on the condition that it would subsequently be approved by the clergy and laity of Rome.

He immediately set out to reform the Roman curia and began the first of the 12 synods he held until his death in 1054. He pushed through programs to eliminate simony and nepotism. He insisted that new bishops should be elected by the clergy and people of their diocese. He also took on some military duties when he led troops into action against invading Normans in southern Italy. Guiley writes that he and his army were defeated and Leo surrendered. He was imprisoned at Benevento for several months. St. Peter Damian criticized Leo for his military action.

In 1053 Leo became involved in a dispute with Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople for ritual differences with the Latin Church. This breach led to the break known as the Eastern Schism. One of his most lasting decrees was put into effect five years after his death: that the Pope be elected only by cardinals. It endures to the present day. He died on April 19, 1054, in St. Peter’s where he had his bed and coffin placed side by side some days before.

St. Caius is perhaps the most obscure of the saintly popes of April. There is not much written about him except that he became pope in 283 and may have been martyred, although there is no factual basis for that. He is also known as Gaius and his papacy was from 283-296.

He is given credit for a decree that stated that bishops must be priests before consecration. Some biographers write that he fled to a cave when the Christians were being persecuted under Diocletian and lived there for eight years until his death. He was the last pontiff to be interred in the papal crypt of the Catacomb of St. Callistus on the Appian Way. He is especially venerated in Dalmatia and Venice. His feast day is April 22.

St. Pius V was born Anthony (Michele) Ghislieri in Bosco Marengo, Italy in 1504. He joined the Dominican order when he was 14 years old. After his ordination in 1540, he taught philosophy and theology for 16 years. He went on to become bishop of Sutri and the inquisitor for Lombardy in 1556. Editor Dom Basil Watkins writes in "The Book of Saints" that he fought corruption that was rampant in many aspects of church life.

He was elected pope after a 19 day conclave largely through the efforts of Charles Borromeo who saw him as the reformer the church needed. Guiley wrote that Pius continued to wear the white Dominican habit which has become standard dress of all subsequent popes.

McBrien lists his major accomplishments as enforcing the decrees of the Council of Trent, publishing the Roman Catechism, reforming the Roman Missal (which was used in the whole church until the Second Vatican Council) and the Roman Breviary, and excommunicating Queen Elizabeth I of England. In this last action, Pius absolved Elizabeth’s subject from allegiance to her thereby exposing them to persecution, imprisonment, torture and execution. He is also remembered for sponsoring a fleet of more than 200 ships that defeated the Turkish navy in the Battle of Lepanto. After this victory Pius inserted the words "Help of Christians" in the Litany of Our Lady.

Pius died on May 1, 1572. He was canonized in 1712 by Pope Clement XI. His feast day is April 30.

Mary Lou Gibson is a member of St. Austin Parish in Austin. She is a retired state employee.

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