Obscure Saints interest me greatly, so this felt like a heavenly nudge to write about St Anicetus.
There are two good reasons to research and write about exceptionally holy men and women from times buried under the fog of history. 1. Romans 12:10 'Outdo one another in showing honour': someone who served as Pope is definitely worthy of honour, as are those martyred for their faith in Jesus. 2. Immense numbers seek the intercession of St Francis of Assisi and St Anthony of Padua, maybe a handful of people seek the intercession of an obscure Saint: just imagine the intensity and power of that obscure Saint's intercession on your behalf.
St Anicetus lived in the second century A.D, and was our 11th Pope, ruling for a few months shy of 11 years between the mid 150s and the mid 160s. To put that in context, St Pius X served for a few days more than 11 years and Pope Benedict XVI served for a little less than 8 years. Think about what those two achieved, and it is easy to conclude that the pontificate of St Anicetus was a significant one.
Now add in that he wasn't Roman, or Italian, and came from Syria. Then, as now, for a foreigner to be elected, he's going to be something special. His name reinforces that: Anicetus translated from Latin means 'unsurpassable, unconquered, unconquerable'. That might be what a great warrior, gladiator or athlete might call his son. But what if it was a nickname that stuck? That would make him someone to be reckoned with indeed.
To take on the role of Pope in that era, you had to have courage. There was a nasty trend of martyrdom to contend with. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was emperor at that time, and the latter part of his reign saw the 4th general persecution of Christians. Eusebuis is silent as to whether St Anicetus was martyred, Butler fence sits and says that if he wasn't martyred he went through enough difficulties to add up to one, and the Roman Martyrology has no qualms about calling him a martyr. The latter is enough proof for me and gives a feast day of 17 April.
St Anicetus lived at a pivotal time in the life of the Church, those who had living memory of meeting the apostles were as scarce as hen's teeth, and provision had to be made to preserve the patrimony of the apostles for future generations. During his pontificate, St Hegesippus who had written an account of the history of first 100 years of the church came to Rome. Sadly it is no longer extant. Was he called there by St Anicetus? Did he go there of his own accord to do first hand research? Either way, what a resource St Hegesippus would have been for sorting out what was authentically passed down by the apostles and what wasn't! He certainly stayed around Rome for 20 years.
St Anicetus certainly met with St Polycarp, a disciple of St John the Apostle. They had an issue to sort out concerning Easter. Because Easter originates from the Jewish Passover, it is based on the lunar calendar. Rome, the patrimony of St Peter and St Paul, celebrated Easter on the Sunday following Passover. The cities of the patrimony of St John celebrated Easter at Passover (on whatever day of the week it fell). After meeting and discussing the issue at length, both traditions were agreed to be worth keeping. What a classic 'both / and' Catholic solution! On the one hand we can look with hindsight and see the havoc that disunity over the date of celebrating Easter has caused over the centuries. On the other hand we can look with hindsight and be grateful for this precedent of preserving the patrimony of the particular churches without which we wouldn't have the Anglican Ordinariate, nor the Ambrosian and Coptic Rites.
During his pontificate St Anicetus had two major heresies to contend with. The first one originated with Marcion, who decided he didn't like the God of the Old Testament, and ditched it in favour of potions of the Gospel and the writings of St Paul. The second one originated with Valentinus and was a version of Gnosticism. Valentinus was an eloquent and charismatic teacher who held that knowledge – not faith – was requisite for salvation. He was selling a halfway position between the pantheon of Gods of the Greco-Roman world and the monotheism of Christianity.
To St Anicetus is also attributed the requirement that priests not grow their hair long. In part this could have been to make it easier to distinguish who was heretical and who wasn't. In part it could have been a measure to counteract the tendency of some towards taking too much care of their personal appearance. Shorter hair needs less time and attention than longer hair, and vanity is not a vice that males are immune from. Maybe it was driven by both reasons.
And to think that St Anicetus has been interceding before the heavenly throne of God for the needs and welfare of the church for over 1800 years!
Thank you Heavenly Father for placing St Anicetus as chief shepherd over Your church in his day, and for his good example to us and for his intercession for us. May his prayers help us to serve You ever more perfectly, to hold on to what is good, to reject evil, heresy and vice and to pass the deposit of faith whole and intact onto the next generations. We ask this through Jesus Christ, Your Son and our Redeemer. Amen.
St Anicetus, pray for us.