Pope Saint Telesphorus, who led the Church during Emperor Antoninus Pius’ reign around 125 to 138 AD, made significant contributions to Christian practices, many of which persist today. Originally a Greek anchorite, his influence is notably evident in the observance of Lent and the celebration of Christmas Mass.
The “Liber Pontificalis” credits St. Telesphorus with instituting a seven-week fast preceding Easter. Although the practice of a Lenten fast predated his time, as evidenced by St. Irenaeus, the exact duration varied in the early Church. It’s likely that St. Telesphorus played a role in standardizing the length of this important period of fasting and reflection.
Another enduring custom associated with St. Telesphorus is the celebration of Mass at night during Christmas, deviating from the usual practice of holding Mass between the hours of 9 to 12 in the morning. This change marked the beginning of the tradition of Midnight Mass at Christmas, a beloved practice in the Christian world. However, there is scholarly debate over whether this decree can be definitively traced back to St. Telesphorus.
Furthermore, St. Telesphorus is credited with the decree that the “Gloria in Excelsis” hymn be sung exclusively during the Christmas Mass. This hymn of praise, while not included in all Masses even in contemporary times, was restricted until the eleventh century, with only the Pope permitted to recite it more frequently, and priests limited to Easter celebrations.
St. Telesphorus’ papacy ended in martyrdom, a fact corroborated by both the “Liber Pontificalis” and the earlier accounts of St. Irenaeus. He was laid to rest near St. Peter on the Vatican grounds. His memory is honored on January 5 in the Roman liturgy and on February 22 in the Greek tradition.
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