Saint of the Day – St Pope Soter (died c 174) – Latin: Soterius; died c 174) was the Bishop of Rome from c 167 to his death c 174. According to the Annuario Pontificio, the dates may have ranged from 162–168 to 170–177. He was born in Fondi, Campania, today Lazio region, Italy. St Pope Soter is known for declaring that marriage was valid only as a sacrament blessed by a priest and also for formally inaugurating Easter as an annual festival in Rome and for combatting Montanism. His name, from Greek σωτήρ “saviour”, would be his baptismal name, as his lifetime predates the tradition of adopting papal names.
Saint Soter’s feast day is celebrated today, 22 April, as is that of Saint Pope Caius. The Roman Martyrology, the official list of recognised saints, references Soter: “At Rome, Saint Soter, Pope, whom Dionysius of Corinth praises for his outstanding charity towards needy exiled Christians who came to him and towards those who had been condemned to the mines.”
It has often been supposed that all the earliest Popes suffered martyrdom but the Roman Martyrology does not give Pope Soter the title of martyr. The book detailing the 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar states: “There are no grounds for including Saint Soter and Saint Caius among the martyrs.”
Born to a Greek father in Latium, Italy, St Soter became the twelfth pope, raised to the Papacy upon the death of St Anicetus in 173. He is remembered for his love and charity of persecuted Christians, as well as his bravery during a time in which it was dangerous to be a Christian, let alone the pope!
The Montanist movement, which originated in Asia Minor, made its way to Rome and Gaul in the second half of the 2nd century, during the reign of Eleuterus. Its nature did not diverge so much from the orthodoxy of the time for it to initially be labelled heresy. During the violent persecution at Lyon, in 177, local confessors wrote from their prison concerning the new movement to the Asiatic and Phrygian communities as well as to Pope Eleuterus. The bearer of their letter to the pope was the presbyter St Irenaeus, soon to become Bishop of Lyon. It appears from statements of Eusebius concerning these letters that the Christians of Lyon, though opposed to the Montanist movement, advocated patience and pleaded for the preservation of ecclesiastical unity.
When the Roman church took its definite stand against Montanism is not precisely known. Tertullian records that a Roman bishop sent some conciliatory letters to the Montanists but based on the complaints of Praxeas “concerning the prophets themselves and their churches and by insistence on the decisions of the bishop’s predecessors” forced the pontiff to recall these letters. Another ancient source states that “Holy Soter, Pope of the City, wrote against them a book, as did the master, Apollonius of Ephesus. Against these wrote the priest Tertullian of Carthage. Who in all ways wrote well, wrote first and wrote incomparably, in this alone did reprehensibly, that he defended Montanus”. At Rome, the Gnostics and Marcionites continued to preach against the Catholic Church.
Letters written to Saint Soter have survived, addressed to him by Saint Dionysius of the Corinthian church and others. These letters reference the fatherly love with which Saint Soter wrote to and help support and build the congregation of the Church, offering prayers and financial assistance to all in need—those imprisoned in Rome, those Christians sent to work in the dangerous mines for failing to renounce their faith and those who lived in the remotest of Churches (like Corinth at the time), extending the charity of the Church well beyond that of his predecessors.
From the letter of Saint Dionysius: “From the beginning it has been your custom to do good to all the brethren in many ways and to send alms to many churches in every city, refreshing the poverty of those who sent requests, or giving aid to the brethren in the mines, by the alms which you have had the habit of giving from old, Romans keeping up the traditional custom of the Romans; which your blessed Bishop Soter has not only preserved but has even increased, by providing the abundance which he has sent to the saints and by further consoling with blessed words with brethren who came to him, as a loving father his children… Today, therefore, we have kept the holy Lord’s day, on which we have read your letter, which we shall always have to read and be admonished, even as the former letter which was written to us by the ministry of Clement.”
St Soter died in C 174 and buried in the Callistus Catacombs in Rome, Italy. At his tomb are written the words, “Pope Saint Soter, Master of Charity, Pray for us!”
While we know little about his life, the charitable works and principles of Pope Saint Soter remain extant, inspiring us to evaluate our lives. Who could we be more loving and charitable to? How better could be model our lives after Saint Soter,? How better could we model our lives after Our Blessed Mother, the perfect model of Christian charity?