St. Stephen's pontificate, though short was to see the Church troubled
by a vexatious controversy within and attacked by a bitter persecution
St. Stephen was a Roman, the son of Jobius. He ordered the clergy not
to use their consecrated vestments for daily purposes.
The key figure in the vexing dispute over rebaptism was the bishop
of Carthage, the great writer St. Cyprian. Cyprian, a man of vigor, called
upon Pope Stephen to depose the bishops of Merida and Leon in Spain because
during the persecution they had secured certificates saying that they had
sacrificed to idols. Pope Stephen agreed with Cyprian and did depose the
weak pair. Cyprian, who certainly kept an eye on things, once more called
on the Pope--this time to depose Marcian, bishop of Arles in Gaul, because
he had fallen into the Novatian heresy. Once more Pope Stephen consented.
But a third time Cyprian found that Stephen could not agree with him, and
that was in the thorny question of heretical baptism.
There were a number of converts coming into the Church from heresy.
Now if these were lapsed Catholics, they were absolved and given penance.
But what if they were pagans who had been baptized by heretics? St. Cyprian
firmly believed that they must be rebaptized and, being Cyprian, loudly
proclaimed it. For, said Cyprian, outside the Church baptism is simply
not valid. Cyprian held a council of African bishops in 255 and this council
approved Cyprian's view. He sent the decisions of the council on to Pope
The Pope refused to approve. In his answer to Cyprian, Stephen took
the stand that tradition was sacred. In often quoted words Stephen said,
"Let there be no innovation beyond what has been handed down."
In other words, as supreme guardian of Christian tradition, Stephen refused
to recognize Cyprian's theory and practice as truly Christian.
St. Cyprian had definitely acknowledged the supremacy of the Pope,
but he did not seem to feel that the matter of rebaptism fell within the
limits of papal jurisdiction. To bolster his position he held another council
in 256, and once more the African bishops backed him up. Although there
was no talk of the Pope's decision, it was a defiant act. Stephen began
to threaten excommunication. Thereupon St. Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea
in Cappadocia, wrote a strong letter attacking such a course. St. Stephen,
a patient man, seems to have let matters ride. Soon the persecution of
Valerian ended the lives of both principals. As usual the Roman doctrine
finally prevailed. By the end of the century all Africa was in accord with
Rome in this matter, and the dissident dioceses of Asia followed somewhat
The persecution, in which St. Cyprian gloriously atoned for what fault
there was in his well-meaning but misguided stubbornness, was roused by
Emperor Valerian. Valerian, an honest soldier, was at first favorable to
the Christians, but influenced by his right-hand man Macrianus, he turned
to magic and soon issued two edicts of persecution. These aimed at the
leaders of the Church and the corporate life of the Church.
St. Stephen fell a victim to this persecution. The details of his martyrdom
are not clear. It may be that he died an exile. He was buried in the Cemetery
of Calixtus. His feast is kept on August 2.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.