Christ's Faithful People
254 - 257 AD
St. Stephen's pontificate, though short was to see the Church troubled by a vexatious controversy within and attacked by a bitter persecution from without.
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 Stephen.
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 later.
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.