Saints aren’t born, they’re made. And some men and women we venerate today took a very long time to achieve sanctity. In the cases of St. Hippolytus and St. Olga, it was an open question whether they would ever rise to the level of simply being nice. Here are three individuals who did not become saintly until late in life.
St. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236)
We tend to think of antipopes as a phenomenon of the Middle Ages. Between 1058 and 1449, 22 ambitious, unprincipled men set themselves up in opposition to the legitimate pope, causing confusion and disruption throughout the Catholic world.
Yet, the first antipope appeared much earlier, in 217; he was a 47-year-old Roman priest named Hippolytus, a brilliant theologian, a spellbinding preacher and one of the least forgiving men the Church has ever known.
In 217, a Roman priest named Callixtus had been elected pope. Callixtus was a man with a past: He had been an embezzler, a brawler and a convict. But he had repented and reformed his life, and the change was so complete that the majority of the clergy of Rome (who elected the pope at this time) considered Callixtus a worthy successor to St. Peter.
It wasn’t just Callixtus’ past that galled Hippolytus, it was also his policies. Pope Callixtus absolved penitent adulterers and fornicators, and readmitted to the Church heartbroken Christians who, out of fear of torture and death, had renounced their faith and sacrificed to the pagan gods. Hippolytus insisted that such sinners should be cut off forever; priests who took the same hard line met and elected Hippolytus as their pope.
The split dragged on for 19 years. Even after the martyrdom of St. Callixtus, the election and martyrdom of Pope St. Urban I and the election of Pope St. Pontian, Hippolytus still insisted that he was the true pope.
In 235 a new wave of anti-Christian persecution swept through Rome; both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested and sentenced to the mines in Sardinia. There, Hippolytus, now 66, came at last to his senses, repented and was reconciled with Pope Pontian. Both men died of harsh treatment in the mines. Christians were able to recover their bodies and give them decent burial in the catacombs. To the Christians of Rome, Hippolytus’ repentance and martyrdom wiped his schismatic past, and they venerated him as a saint — along with Pontian and Callixtus.
St. Helen (249-330)
In 309, St. Helen, or Helena, abandoned the Roman gods and converted to Christianity at age 60. None of her family joined her at the baptismal font: her ex-husband, Constantius Chlorus, who after 22 years of marriage had divorced Helen to make an advantageous marriage with a member of Rome’s imperial family, was already dead; her son, Constantine, was busy fighting his rivals to become emperor of Rome. Nonetheless, in the last two decades of her life, Helen would become one of the most influential Christians in history.
In 312, Constantine won a decisive victory over the last of his rivals at the Milvian Bridge on the outskirts of Rome. Tradition tells us that before the battle he had a vision of a cross with an inscription that read In hoc signo vinces, “In this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine ordered his men to mount the Chi Rho, the monogram of Christ, on their standards and paint it on their shields.
Constantine was not a Christian, but he had some familiarity with it because of his mother. In 313, urged on by his mother and in thanksgiving for his victory, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which ended the persecution of the Church and granted freedom of worship to Christians.
But Constantine went well beyond toleration. He gave the Lateran Palace to Pope St. Miltiades as his residence. During the reign of Pope St. Sylvester I, Constantine began construction of the Basilica of St. Peter, the Lateran Basilica and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Constantine opened up the highest offices in the empire to Christians; he abolished crucifixion out of respect for the passion of Christ; he declared Sunday a legal holiday — markets and government offices were obliged to close. When he founded his new capital, Constantinople, churches were the only houses of worship he erected within the city walls — no temples to any of the Roman gods were permitted. In 325, as the Arian heresy spread through the empire, Constantine called a council of bishops to meet at Nicaea, in what is now Turkey, to debate the issue.
This sudden change of events was extraordinary. Between 299 and 304 Christians had suffered the most ferocious period of persecution in their history. For the first time, an emperor — in this case, Diocletian — had called for an empire-wide purge of Christians. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and killed, among them such renowned martyrs as St. Agnes, St. Sebastian, St. Lucy and St. George. Yet, less than a decade later, the Church emerged from the catacombs, the pope moved into an imperial palace and Christians, including bishops, were among the emperor’s closest advisers. The person who influenced these changes was St. Helen.
In 326, when she was 77, Helen left Rome for a two-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There she found the tomb of Christ and the True Cross, as well as the cave in Bethlehem where Christ had been born. Over these sites Constantine built churches. After Helen’s death in 330, Constantine converted her palace into a church, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which preserves some of the relics she brought back from the Holy Land.
St. Olga (c.879-969)
Olga, princess of Kiev, was a woman who knew how to hold a severe grudge. After Mal, prince of the Drevlians, murdered Olga’s husband, she avenged him with a bloodbath. Some Drevlians she buried alive; others she burned. As for Prince Mal and 500 of his most prominent noblemen and warriors, she invited them to a reconciliation banquet, waited until they were drunk, then slaughtered them all. Finally, she attacked the Drevlian capital, burned it to the ground and sold the survivors into slavery.
Nine years later, in 954, Olga, now 75 years old, traveled to Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor was the most powerful figure in the region, and Olga wanted him as an ally. She got her treaty, but also something unexpected: in Constantinople, Olga’s heart was touched by divine grace. She asked to be instructed in the Christian faith and was baptized. We do not know the details of her conversion, only that when she returned to Kiev she brought bishops and priests and deacons with her to preach to her people, as well as carts piled high with liturgical vessels, vestments, relics of the saints, Bibles and other sacred texts — everything necessary to establish Christianity in what is now the Ukraine.
But Olga’s mission failed. Her people overwhelmingly rejected Christianity and even killed some of the missionaries. Olga’s own family refused to convert — her son and heir told her candidly that Jesus Christ was not a suitable God for a warrior-prince. Perhaps the people of Kiev were not ready for Christianity; perhaps they found it hard to believe that such a ruthless woman was ready to turn the other cheek. Sadly, Olga died believing she was a failure. But the faith planted by Olga took root and flourished under her grandson, St. Vladimir. For her efforts, the Church in the East venerates Olga under the title, “Equal to the Apostles.”
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Cardlinks series and of “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95).