The pontificate of this first third-century pope was to see a storm of heresy rage around the pontiff, who had to keep a firm hand on the tiller of Peter’s bark.
According to the “Liber Pontificalis,” Zephyrinus was a Roman, the son of Habundius. He ordered that all ordinations, whether of priests, deacons, or simple clerics, should take place before the assembled clergy and laity.
The storm which agitated Christian thought in the time of Pope Zephyrinus was due to a double heresy. On the one hand, Theodotus the Tanner, though excommunicated by Pope St. Victor, was still teaching that Christ was not the true Son of God. On the other hand, a certain Praxeas came to Rome to tell Pope Zephyrinus that the old idea of the Trinity was all wrong, that really there were not three Persons in one Divine Nature, but only three modes of one substance.
Pope Zephyrinus, who was no philosopher, clung firmly to the traditional doctrine handed down from the Apostles. In the midst of these metaphysical storms, he also had a good strong adviser in Calixtus, who succeeded him as Pope.
Eusebius in his “Ecclesiastical History” has an interesting story about the heretics in the pontificate of Pope Zephyrinus. Theodotus the Tanner, far from being silenced by Pope Victor’s excommunication, had set up his own church. He had found backers in another Theodotus (a banker) and Asclepediotus. The heretics found a man of some prestige to be bishop for them. This was Natalius, who had been a confessor of the faith and had suffered tortures for it. They paid him a yearly stipend–150 denarii, about $25 in prewar money. But as Eusebius tells the story, Jesus, not wishing that one who had suffered for him should go out of the church, sent angels in visions to bring Natalius to a better frame of mind. Natalius, blinded by the pinchbeck glory of being a heretical bishop, at first paid the visions little attention. But one night the angels gave the stubborn fellow a sound whipping. This brought him to his senses. He put on sack- cloth, covered himself with ashes and hastened to throw himself before Pope Zephyrinus and plead for pardon.
Besides heresy, Pope Zephyrinus had to cope with renewed persecution. Septimius Severus, friendly at the start of his reign, became decidedly hostile. During the pontificate of Zephvrinus the Emperor issued his famous decree forbidding anyone to become a Christian.
St. Zephyrinus is honored as a martyr by the Church. He was buried in his own cemetery or August 26. His feast is kept on August 26.