In the Roman empire slaves not only engaged in back breaking, demeaning work but they could be bank managers or principals of schools as well. Callistus, a slave, was good at finance and managing things, tradition says. In fact, he may have gotten into trouble over some of his financial transactions.
The church recognized his good qualities. When Zephyrinus became bishop of Rome, he asked Callistus to serve as deacon and to take charge of a large Christian cemetery along the Via Appia, which today bears his name. Callistus not only supervised the burial of the dead but also the care and support of the families they left behind.
When Zephyrinus died in 217 A.D. Callistus was the popular choice to succeed him. Evidently, Roman Christians saw him, not as a slave, but as a man of faith, a good administrator, who could guide and lead them. The church grew under his leadership.
Tradition says Callistus built a place of prayer at or near a hospice for old or sick soldiers in Trastevere, where healing oil welled up. Today the beautiful Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere stands on the spot. You can still see the place where the healing oil was found and Callistus’ remains are buried under the church’s main altar.
As pope, Callistus advocated for certain causes. He favored free women being able to marry slaves. He favored ordination for men who had been married two or three times. He also maintained that the church could forgive all sins, even the sin of denying one’s faith.
Some opposed him, not because he was a slave, but because his proposals clashed with their own rather rigorous views.
In our own time, Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave brought to New York City in the 18th century, is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church. One thing some people find strange is Toussaint’s lack of involvement in the abolition movement of his time. He certainly opposed any violent opposition to slavery; he himself delayed gaining his freedom in order to serve his owners, the Berard family.
Was he convinced that status doesn’t determine who you are, that all are equal before God? We are all God’s children “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, neither male nor female.” (Galatians 3,28) Was he so assured of his own dignity that it didn’t matter whether you were slave or free? Toussaint, a slave, was one of the most highly respected men in New York.
I’m sure Toussaint advocated the end of slavery. But it’s nice to know that someone wouldn’t see himself defined by status. He knew who he was.