As every Catholic kid learns at least by kindergarten, saints get days—“a feast day” once a year. Today, (August 13) is my favorite; the feast of the early Christian martyrs St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus. No, not the most famous or popular of saints, but I think they should be.
The story of how Pontian and Hippolytus got paired together to be celebrated on the same day is long and involved and I’ll spare you most of the details. In brief, it’s early third century Rome and Hippolytus thinks that recent Popes have been much to ready and happy to forgive sinners and heretics So they don’t deserve to be Popes—instead he, Hippolytus should be. He had an enthusiastic bunch of followers who agreed. At the next papal election, Pontian, not Hippolytus, was elected and the conflict between these two and their supporters turned white hot.
The emperor of Rome at that time was Maximinus the Barbarian. Despite his last name, Maximinus wanted peace and quiet in Rome and apparently had no particular interest in persecuting Christians. He warned Pontian and Hippolytus to settle their differences or face the consequences because he would not tolerate fighting in the streets. Neither Pontian, the Pope, nor Hippolytus, the anti-Pope, nor their followers listened which is a fatal mistake when your emperor is nicked-named “The Barbarian.” Maximinis arrested both and sent them to work in the lead mines of Sardinia—an unpleasant fate. Pontian resigned as Pope, the first to do so, hoping that his successor would have a better chance to reconcile the competing factions in the Church before things got any worse.
While mining lead together, Pontian and Hippolytus reconciled with each other and then they died from the hardships of their labors. The next year, Pope Fabian had both Pontians’ and Hipploytus’ bodies brought back to Rome where they were immediately revered as martyrs. As a precaution, however, Fabian had the bodies buried in separate catacombs at opposite ends of Rome just in case the two might be inclined to resume their dispute when they saw each other at the Last Judgment. I think you could say that Pontian and Hippolytus are the only martyrs who martyred each other.
Overcoming incompatibilities sooner rather than later can be important. That’s one of the reasons some people pay attention to the Chinese Zodiac signs—for example, if one was born in the year of the dog then find a spouse born under the sign of horse but stay away from anyone born in the year of the ox. Okay, so far, but I don’t know what the Chinese Zodiac advises those compatible parents who have a teenager born under the totally incompatible ox sign. (And evidence suggests it happens fairly often.)
As Pontian and Hipplytus discovered, incompatibilities can’t be simply excused as "fate” and then left to fester because that tends to end badly.
In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus left Israel and went to neighboring Phoenicia where a Canaanite woman asks for His help. Jesus, of course, is a Jew and Jews and Canaanites have been utterly incompatible since Moses moved in and took over the land of Canaan long, long before. Instantly the ancient incompatibility emerges when Jesus answers the woman’s request with “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” And, “It is not right to take the food of the children and feed it to the dogs.” That’s pretty hostile. Nevertheless, their conversation continues because the woman is desperate to save her daughter, desperate enough not to let ancient history and hostilities get in her way.
The Gospel gives us only a brief snippet of their conversation but Jesus seems to respond so strongly to the woman’s overwhelming concern for her daughter’s well-being that He pauses then calls her love “faith”… “ O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish.”
History would say that Jesus and the Canaanite woman were destined by fate to be utterly incompatible, and they nearly were except her love would not accept such a fate for her child.
So, love good—fate bad—conversation helps.