Wednesday, March 10, 2010

San Sisto Vecchio

Today's station church is the Basilica of San Sisto. Though there has been a basilica on this location since the 4th or 5th century, very little of the original structure remains. Nevertheless, this small basilica gives us the chance to talk about the saint himself, Pope St. Sixtus, who was a martyr in the early centuries of the Church.

Pope St. Sixtus entrusting St. Lawrence with the alms to give to the poor.

The chapel can still be visited in the catacombs of St. Callistus where Pope St. Sixtus II and four deacons were celebrating the liturgy when the Roman soldiers burst in and arrested them. On the way to their execution, another deacon came forward to the pope and begged to be allowed to accompany him. "Where are you going, my dear father, without your son? Where are you hurrying off to, holy priest, without your deacon? Before you never mounted the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you wish to do it without me?" The pope replied that, while not now, in a few days time the deacon would join him in suffering for the faith. And so did St. Lawrence go and prepare for his own death. Now the memory of the martyred pope is kept by this modest basilica, which has quietly stood on this location for over sixteen centuries.

The foundation of the basilica here is dated to the reign of Pope Anastasius, who reigned from 399 to 401. At that time it was known primarily as the Titulus Crescentianae, with the name of St. Sixtus being more frequently used beginning in the sixth century. In these early centuries the scrutinies of the catechumens were held at this church, before receiving Baptism at the Lateran Baptistery.

A representation of the ancient basilica of San Sisto on the Via Appia
Shortly before the pontificate of Sixtus II the Emperor Valerian issued his first edict of persecution, which made it binding upon the Christians to participate in the national cult of the pagan gods and forbade them to assemble in the cemeteries, threatening with exile or death whomsoever was found to disobey the order.

In some way or other, Sixtus II managed to perform his functions as chief pastor of the Christians without being molested by those who were charged with the execution of the imperial edict. But during the first days of August, 258, the emperor issued a new and far more cruel edict against the Christians, the import of which has been preserved in a letter of St. Cyprian to Successus, the Bishop of Abbir Germaniciana. It ordered bishops, priests, and deacons to be summarily put to death.
Sixtus II was one of the first to fall a victim to this imperial enactment. In order to escape the vigilance of the imperial officers he assembled his flock on 6 August at one of the less-known cemeteries, that of Prætextatus, on the left side of the Appian Way, nearly opposite the cemetery of St. Callistus. While seated on his chair in the act of addressing his flock he was suddenly apprehended by a band of soldiers. There is some doubt whether he was beheaded forthwith, or was first brought before a tribunal to receive his sentence and then led back to the cemetery for execution. The latter opinion seems to be the more probable.

Four deacons, Januarius, Vincentius, Magnus, and Stephanus, were apprehended with Sixtus and beheaded with him at the same cemetery (

The room in the Catacombs of San Callisto where Pope St. Sixtus and his four deacons were martyred by the soldiers of the emperor Valerian

The following inscription honoring was placed on his tomb in the catacomb of Callixtus by Pope Damasus I:
At the time when the sword pierced the bowels of the Mother, I, buried here, taught as Pastor the Word of God; when suddenly the soldiers rushed in and dragged me from the chair. The faithful offered their necks to the sword, but as soon as the Pastor saw the ones who wished to rob him of the palm (of martyrdom) he was the first to offer himself and his own head, not tolerating that the (pagan) frenzy should harm the others. Christ, who gives recompense, made manifest the Pastor's merit, preserving unharmed the flock. (

The inside of the basilica. Most of the structure is very recent.

First Reading: Dt 4:1, 5-9
Responsorial Psalm147:12-13, 15-16, 19-20
Gospel: Mt 5:17-19

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