Pope Alexander I (? – 116?) – a holy shepherd of the holy water

Series of paintings depicting popes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua

Series of paintings depicting popes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua

According to the official list of popes (approved by the Roman Catholic Church in 1942) he was the sixth bishop of Rome. However, we do not know much about him, but of course where there is a lack of historical sources, the void is filled with legends – and so it is in this case as well. We will encounter Alexander when reading hagiographic texts about St. Balbina. It was he who was supposed to free her from illness and thus lead to her conversion to Christianity. In chains, he performed miracles, to ultimately end his life as a martyr and become a saint. However, as is often the case, subsequent research and discoveries can bring turmoil into a sanctified tradition, which can cause even a pope to lose his nimbus.

Series of paintings depicting popes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua
Pope Alexander I, statue in the arcade of the Porta Pia gate
Pope Alexander I, Pietro Perugino, decoration between the windows, Sistine Chapel
Pope Alexander I, decoration between the windows, Pietro Perugino, fragment, Sistine Chapel
Series of paintings depicting popes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Pope Alexander I – third from the left

According to the official list of popes (approved by the Roman Catholic Church in 1942) he was the sixth bishop of Rome. However, we do not know much about him, but of course where there is a lack of historical sources, the void is filled with legends – and so it is in this case as well. We will encounter Alexander when reading hagiographic texts about St. Balbina. It was he who was supposed to free her from illness and thus lead to her conversion to Christianity. In chains, he performed miracles, to ultimately end his life as a martyr and become a saint. However, as is often the case, subsequent research and discoveries can bring turmoil into a sanctified tradition, which can cause even a pope to lose his nimbus.

 


Alexander most likely came from the lower ranks of Roman aristocracy, since – according to chroniclers – it was he who was responsible for many conversions of its representatives. He was elected as the bishop of Rome most likely in the year 105 A.D., as still a young man between twenty and thirty years old. And that is really all that we can say about him. All other information regarding the pope is connected with the tradition of the Church. It is this tradition that says it was he who introduced into the canon of the Holy Mass, the sentence commemorating the passion of Christ, which today can be heard in all Catholic churches around the world on Good Thursday (“On the day before he was to suffer for our salvation and the salvation of all, that is… "), as well as the habit of men taking off their head covering when coming into the church. However, that is not all. He is also connected with the common today practice of using holy water in the Catholic Church. It is used by priests and the faithful, most likely oblivious to the fact that it was “an invention” introduced into the Church, only after the liturgy and all the ceremonies surrounding it had already been in place, and the man responsible for it was Alexander. And although there is no proof of this, it is he who was allegedly responsible for introducing the practice of dipping one’s fingers into water (mixed with salt) and making the sign of the cross prior to entering the church, as well as adding water to wine during mass. Today we associate holy water with baptism, however in times of Alexander baptism took place in baptismal fonts (baptisteries) with regular water, in which the baptized immersed his whole body. However, the usage of holy water also concerned the residences of Christians. Interestingly enough it initially served to scare off the devil and a vessel for it was placed in the… bedroom. And if today somebody is surprised at a priest blessing cars, new sections of highways or public utility buildings, then he should be aware of the fact that this is done to scare away evil (a trace of the belief in such power of holy water can be found in the saying “avoid something like the devil avoids holy water”).

It is especially difficult to say something about the death of Alexander I. He most likely died during the reign of Emperor Trajan. According to tradition which came about in the V century he was beheaded, after previously being flogged and having his limbs broken. He was buried in the Catacombs of Praetextatus at via Appia. However, at the present we can be sure that he was confused with another only identified by name Alexander, martyred during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian two centuries later. This is further confirmed by one of the Fathers of the Church, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, who in writing his chronicle of the popes, does not mention the alleged martyr’s death of the bishop of Rome, Alexander, which he most assuredly would have done had it been the case. Therefore, the remains of an unknown Alexander and his two companions (Theodulus and Eventius) were laid to rest at the seventh milestone at via Nomentana. The awareness of these two figures “becoming” one came about relatively early, however it is difficult to argue with legends. Especially, since the relics of St. Alexander were to be transferred to Freising in present-day Upper Bavaria in the year 834 – but just which Alexander did this peregrination concern, remains a mystery.

If we would like to come in close contact with the mystery of St. Alexander we may travel to the aforementioned, surrounded by greenery place, at the seventh mile (via Nomentana 1291). Here, as early as the IV century a small oratory was erected devoted to the martyrs buried in the nearby catacombs (entry upon prior reservation). It was damaged during the invasion of Rome by the armies of Alaric and later Genseric and not discovered until 1854 during excavation works conducted under the auspices of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. At that time a small basilica was reconstructed in which proof of the cult of three martyrs was discovered, one of whom was named Alexander, but most assuredly it was not Pope Alexander I.

We should not worry though. In 1969 the liturgical feast of St. Pope Alexander, which fell on 3 May was annulled. However this does not mean that he was stripped of sanctity. As we can read in the Martyrologium Romanum: “Who has once been deemed a saint and has been entered into the Martyrologium, remains a saint for all eternity, even if he has been removed from all liturgical calendars all over the world”.