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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume VI: June. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

June 4

St. Optatus, Bishop of Milevum, Confessor

        From his own writings. See Tillemont, Hist. des Donatistes, t. 6, p. 142. Ceillier, t. 6, p. 625. D. Collina, Dissert. sur l’Hérés. des Donat. Bolog. 1758; also Hist. Donat. Ballerini. App. in Op. Card. Noris. Veronæ, 1732.

Fourth Age.

THIS father was an African, and an illustrious champion of the church of Christ in the fourth age. He was educated an idolater, and St. Austin names him with St. Cyprian and St. Hilary, among those who had passed from the dark shades of paganism, to the light of faith, and carried into the church the spoils of Egypt, that is, human science and eloquence. In another place he styles him a prelate of venerable memory, who was by his virtue an ornament to the Catholic church. St. Fulgentius honours him with the title of saint, and places him in the same rank with St. Austin and St. Ambrose. He was bishop of Milevum in Numidia, and the first Catholic prelate who undertook by writing to stem the tide of the Donatist schism in Africa. Parmenian, the third bishop of that sect at Carthage, wrote five books in defence of his party, in which he declaimed in general against the Traditors, and proved what recoiled upon himself, that there can be but one church and one baptism. The Donatists boasted of the advantage they pretended this performance gave them over the Catholics: indeed their champion was a man of learning and abilities, well versed in the art of sophistry, and capable of covering the worst cause with specious glosses. Against this Goliath, St. Optatus stepped forth, stripped him of the armour in which he trusted, and turned all his artillery against himself. This he performed by six books against Parmenian, to which he several years after, in the time of Pope Siricius, about the year 385, added a seventh. 1 In this work we admire the elegance and loftiness of the style, every where animated, and beautifully ornamented with bold and noble figures: and remarkable for a sententious energy and conciseness, which distinguishes the best African writers from all others. It is however observable, that the Augustan polish, and the purity of the Latin tongue had been long before upon the declension. But the chief usefulness and value of this father’s writings are derived from the strength and perspicuity with which he sets off the privileges and marks of the Catholic church, and from the important maxims which he lays down to distinguish the true spouse of Christ from adultresses, by which sound rules, he has overturned all heresies to the end of the world. St. Optatus wrote his six first books about the year 370. To set the state of this controversy in a clear light, it is necessary to take a short view of the Donatist schism, which took its rise from a circumstance that happened in the persecution of Dioclesian.
  The Traditors or Christians, who for fear of torments and death, delivered the holy scriptures into the hands of the persecutors, that they might be burnt, were guilty of a crime which bordered upon apostacy. Upon their repentance, according to the severity of the ecclesiastical discipline, they were to be enjoined a public austere course of penance, and if in holy orders, to be deposed. But in this the bishops had power to dispense, or to grant a relaxation or indulgence. Mensurius, primate of Carthage, and many other Catholic bishops, admitted penitent priests and bishops to their functions without insisting on this condition, alleging a necessity for such an indulgence, and the danger of a schism if they separated themselves from the communion of all that had fallen into that crime. Certain false Numidian zealots, blinded by jealousy or pique, took offence at this mildness, and by their hypocrisy and pretended zeal and severity drew many into schism. Donatus, bishop of Casæ-Nigræ, began this breach, and refused to communicate with Mensurius, and his deacon Cecilian, because they held communion with penitent Traditors. By his clamours he engaged many others in his party, and by a notorious slander accused Mensurius himself of having given up the scriptures into the hands of the heathens. This point was discussed in a famous council held at Cirta, the capital of Numidia, in 305. Mensurius dying in 311, Cecilian was chosen bishop of Carthage; upon which, certain factious spirits who attempted to oppose his election, broke out into a greater flame than ever. Among these no one was more active than a certain rich and powerful lady of Carthage, named Lucilla, who bore Cecilian a grudge because she had formerly received from him a rebuke; and wanted humility and discretion, without which, the show of piety is only a shadow, and pharisaical hypocrisy, and easily degenerates into error and superstition. She was accustomed every morning before she received the body and blood of our Lord, to kiss the bone of an unknown dead man, whom she pretended to have been a martyr, but who was not, or at least had not been acknowledged such by the pastors of the church: for, to prevent abuses and superstition, it was always a necessary law in the church, that without the bishop’s approbation, no private persons should be allowed to pay to relics the honour due to those of martyrs. And it is on this circumstance that St. Optatus and St. Austin lay the stress of this affair. Cecilian, in quality of archdeacon, thought it his duty to put her in mind of her fault: but through the mist of her passions she was not able to discern the charity of this just and necessary correction. Her resentment for this pretended affront seemed to have no bounds when she saw him raised to the archiepiscopal chair of Carthage, and she protected and abetted the faction which was formed against him with the whole weight of her interest and power. This party found no other pretence to set aside his election but upon the foolish plea that he admitted the penitent Traditors to his communion, and thereby defiled the sanctity of the Catholic church. Upon no better grounds, Donatus, bishop of Casæ-Nigræ, first erected altar against altar; and refusing to hold communion with Cecilian, celebrated the divine mysteries at Carthage in domestic chapels; in which he was imitated by other factious persons. The schismatics having gained the keepers of the treasury of the church of Carthage, got possession of the gold and silver chalices and other vessels and rich ornaments that belonged to that church. Thus St. Optatus observes, 2 that anger was the mother of the schism, ambition the nurse, and covetousness the champion to defend it. And St. Austin on this occasion, makes the following remark, that, All who disturb the peace of the church, do this either blinded by pride, distracted with envy, or seduced by worldly covetousness, or by soft passions and lust. 3 The faction being by these arts propagated, soon became numerous. Lucilla, by her money and interest, instigated the heads of the party to carry matters to the last extremity, in which she was seconded by two priests of Carthage, who having been competitors with Cecilian, were discontented at his preferment.  2
  Seventy bishops, chiefly Numidians, espoused this party and met at Cirta, having at their head Secundus the primate of Numidia, Donatus of Mascula, Victor Marinus, Purpurius, and the first author of the schism, Donatus of Casæ-Nigæ. Among these, Donatus of Mascula, Victor, and several others, were notoriously guilty of having delivered up the holy scriptures to the persecutors. But the crime was passed over in them: and by how much the more guilty of such practices the schismatics were themselves, so much the more vehemently did they accuse others; that their pretended zeal against those sins falsely imputed to others, might serve as a cloak to cover their own real guilt, as St. Austin and St. Optatus observe. Some of them, however, confessed their crime in this synod, and were absolved. Next, the schismatical council presumed to pronounce sentence of deposition against Cecilian, alleging that he was a Traditor, or at least that he communicated with Traditors. Therefore they chose and ordained the domestic chaplain of Lucilla, by name Majorinus, the schismatical bishop of Carthage. The bishops of Italy and Gaul, and in particular Pope Miltiades in a council at Rome, acquitted Cecilian and condemned the schismatics, who thereupon forged many slanders against the pope. Schism frequently leads men into heresy; and this was the present case.  3
  The Donatists, pretending that Cecilian was no minister of Christ, nor those who adhered to him members of the true church, maintained they had no true sacraments; and, by admitting to their communion lapsed persons, and profane Traditors, were themselves denied, and ceased to be of the true church. Hence they usually called the Catholics Pagans, Idolators, and Traditors, and rebaptized all who came over to them, pretending that baptism and holy orders cannot be validly conferred out of the Catholic church. To condemn this their capital error, the great council of Arles was assembled out of all the western provinces of the empire in 314. But the schismatics were no less deaf to authority than blind to the evidence of the Catholic truth. They were so far from being daunted by all these sentences, that by obstinacy, their spirit and faction seemed to grow greater, and they appealed to the emperor. Matters of fact being part of the charge, Constantine gave the plaintiffs a full hearing, in hopes by this condescension to bring them over to their duty. But seeing them invincibly obstinate, he, in 316, enacted severe laws against such Donatists as refused to acquiesce in the decision of the church. In the same year, upon the death of Majorinus, they placed in the schismatical chair at Carthage, one Donatus, a man of an austere life, eloquent and learned, but one of the most ambitious, vain, and proud of mortals, betraying in his carriage an unbecoming levity, and passionate to a degree of phrensy. He became the idol of the party, which, according to several good authors, took its name from him, not from the other Donatists of Casæ-Nigæ, the first author of the schism. St. Optatus 4 and St. Austin 5 charge the Donatists with heresy also in another point, inasmuch as they affirmed the Catholic church, which can never fail, and which is the church of all nations, had perished throughout the rest of the world, and was confined to one corner of the earth in Africa. In a great assembly of two hundred and seventy bishops held at Carthage, and in others in several other places, they had the insolence to unchurch the whole Christian world besides themselves, and commanded all who had been baptized by Catholics to be again baptized: to prevent which sacrilege, Constantine by law, made it capital for any one to rebaptize another. 6 They boasted of great purity and sanctity, like the Novatians, but their severity resembled that of the Pharisees; for, blinded by their passions, they did not see the inward uncleanness of their own hearts, defiled by pride, disobedience, and the whole train of other vices which attend those master-springs of spiritual disorders.  4
  About the year 347, a sect of fanatics called Circumcellions sprang up among the Donatists, whose communion they enjoyed, but were their scandal and reproach. These were chiefly wild and ignorant country peasants who, pretending to devote themselves to martyrdom, wandered about for some months or years, pampering themselves as victims fed for sacrifice, and at length cast themselves from rocks or into rivers, or any other way laid violent hands upon themselves, which death they called martyrdom. Many of them compelled strangers whom they met on the high roads to murder them. Some Catholics who met them in this mad phrensy, to save their own lives, and not imbrue their hands in the blood of these fanatics, insisted first upon binding them before they could proceed to do them the desired good turn in sacrificing them: but when they were tied, beat them till they came to their senses, and were contented to live, as Theodoret relates. 7 Such are the extravagancies into which men are led when they have once lost the anchor of truth, and their minds are set afloat on the tide of passions and error. Of this we have the most sensible proof, not only in the follies and impiety of paganism, and in various heresies in past ages, but also in the deism, fanaticism, and numberless wild chimeras and mad dreams in which our own times have been so fruitful among those who wander in the endless mazes of error. The Donatists were very numerous in Africa for above one hundred years, till the zeal of St. Austin, seconded by many others, almost extinguished that sect. St. Optatus had before given this hydra a mortal blow by his books against Parmenian, who had succeeded Donatus in the schismatical see of Carthage.  5
  In this work our saint applauds the principle laid down by Parmenian, that the church is but one: for Christ is only one, and he is the spouse of one church, which is called his only dove, the garden shut up, and the sealed fountain. He joins issue with his adversary, that heretics are prostitutes, and have no right to the jurisdiction or keys of the church, which Peter received; and which were not given to them. He adds, that heretics and schismatics are branches lopt off from the vine, and reserved for the fire. 8 He exaggerates the guilt of schism as a crime more enormous than parricide, and which deserves a punishment like that of Core, Dathan, and Abiron. 9 In these principles both Catholics and Donatists were agreed. St. Optatus then proceeds to show that the latter cannot be the true church, “because,” says he, “in them where is the propriety of the Catholic name;—cooped up as they are in one little part of Africa, in one corner of a single country?—Whereas the church is Catholic or universal, and is spread everywhere. 10 He shows by several texts of the prophets this universality to be one of the essential characteristics of the church. He adds as other marks, its unity, sanctity, and the chair of Peter, “which,” says he, “is ours; and by this it is plain we possess its other prerogatives.” He adds: “Peter sat first in this chair, and was succeeded by Linus.” He names the bishops of Rome from him down to Siricius, “at this day,” says he, “united in our fraternity, in which the whole world agrees with us joined in one communion. 11 To Peter, Christ said, ‘To thee I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ Whence therefore do you claim the keys, who with a sacrilegious presumption and insolence fight against the chair of Peter?” 12 He says again: “You cannot deny that you know the episcopal chair was first given to Peter in the city of Rome, in which first sat the head of the apostles, Peter, which chair was one, that all others might preserve unity by the union they had with it, and lest the other apostles might erect and defend chairs to themselves: so that now he is a schismatic and an offender who sets up another against the only chair.” He gives the history of the origin and follies of the Donatist sect. “As to your party,” says he, “which would willingly be thought to be the church, inquire after the original of your chair.” He says the Donatists answered, they had also a bishop of Rome, named Macrobius, who succeeded to Eucolpius, Eucolpius to Boniface of Balli, and Boniface to one Victor Garbiensis, whom the Donatists had sent from Africa to Rome to preside in their little schismatical church in that city. To this our holy doctor replies: “Can Macrobius say that he sits in the chair of St. Peter, which perhaps he never saw? for certainly he never went to the sepulchre of the apostles;” (that is, to officiate in the cathedral, or be regarded by the Catholic church as seated in the apostolic chair.) “He is disobedient to the command of the apostle, who would have us communicate in the memory of the saints. We see the relics of the two apostles SS. Peter and Paul are in the church of Rome: Tell me, I pray, if he could ever offer in the place where these relics are certainly kept. Macrobius your brother must then confess that he was seated in the chair of Eucolpius, Boniface of Balli, and Victor Garbiensis. This Victor is a son without a father, a disciple without a master, a successor without a predecessor.”  6
  Among the other marks of the church, St. Optatus enlarges and insists particularly upon its extent or universality. “Wherefore,” says he, “would you unchurch the infinite number of Christians that are in the east and the West? You are but a small number of rebels who have opposed all the churches of the world,” &c. 13 He confutes the errors of the Donatists, who pretended that the sacraments are null if given out of the true church, and mentions the exorcisms 14 used in baptism to expel the unclean spirit, (in which sacrament they are still used); as do also St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 15 St. Austin, 16 Tertullian, &c. St. Optatus speaks often of the holy oil and chrism, and relates that “certain Donatists also caused a bottle full of holy oil to be thrown out of a window on purpose to break it; but though it was cast down from a very high place, yet being supported by angels it fell upon the stones without breaking. 17 He says, “that the furious Donatist mob broke down the altars, which the Catholics had made use of;” on which he writes as follows: “What hath Jesus Christ done to you,” says he to the Donatists, “that you should destroy the altars on which he rests at certain times? Why do ye break the sacred tables where Jesus Christ makes his abode? Ye have imitated the crime of the Jews; for as they put Jesus Christ to death upon the cross, so ye have beaten him upon these altars.” He then humourously objects their ridiculous inconsistency: “All the faithful know,” says he, “that linen cloths are laid upon the altars for the celebration of the holy mysteries. The eucharist does not touch the wood of the altars, but only the linen cloths. Why then do you break, why do you scrape, why do you burn the wood of the altar? If the impurity can pass through the linen, why cannot it penetrate the wood, nay and the ground also? If therefore ye scrape off something from the altars because they are impure, I advise you to dig into the ground, and there to make a great ditch, that ye may offer in a most pure place. But take care you do not dig down into hell, where you will find your masters Core, Dathan, and Abiron.” From this raillery he passes to other accusations still more grievous, and says: “You have also redoubled your sacrileges in breaking the chalices which carried the blood of Jesus Christ; 18 you have melted them down to make ingots of gold and silver, which you have sold in the markets indifferently to every one who offered to buy them. O enormous crime! O unheard of impiety!” The holy eucharist itself they threw to beasts, “than which,” says he, “what could be more impious? 19 Your bishops commanded the eucharist to be thrown to the dogs: but presently visible tokens of the divine anger appeared; for the same dogs, being enraged, turned upon their masters, and with their avenging teeth, bit and tore those who were guilty of profaning the holy body?” 20 From these, and many other instances, it is clear that the holy eucharist was then kept in churches after the sacrifice, no less than at present. The saint mentions that the altars were then usually of wood, and for greater respect, covered with a linen cloth. 21 He reproaches the schismatics with having washed the palls and sacred linen cloths, and pretended by washing, to purify the walls of the churches which the Catholics had used. 22 Also with having compelled their sacred virgins to lay aside the veils which they wore, and the little mitres which they put upon their heads as signs or marks of their profession, and to wear mitres of another colour, and another sort of linen. 23 Du Pin writes of this father: “He teaches that we are all born in sin, and that baptism is necessary to obtain the remission of it. He mentions exorcism as a necessary ceremony at baptism. He speaks of chrism as a holy thing, and of the unction that was used at baptism. He expresses himself in so plain terms about the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist, and about the adoration that is due to this holy sacrament, that nothing can be desired more express. He observes many ceremonies at the celebration of the eucharist, to which he gives the name of sacrifice.” The Donatists used and reverenced the holy oblation or mass and all the sacraments; but pretended those administered by persons who were not of their own sect to be void and null; and that they were only holy among themselves who were pure. St. Optatus writes, “that the church has judges,” says Du Pin, “that she punishes crimes, that she exacts penance of those who confess their sins or are convicted of them. He observes, that a vow of virginity was solemnly made by those who dedicated themselves to God, and that they carried a small covering upon their heads, which was the sign of the vow they had made. He testifies the respect that in his time was paid to the relics of the saints, when he speaks of the sepulchre of SS. Peter and Paul; and speaking of Lucilla, he blames those who honoured the relics of false martyrs not owned by the church.” St. Optatus survived the year 384; but the time of his death is not known. His name occurs in the Roman Martyrology on the 4th of June. St. Optatus makes schism a more grievous crime than murder. 24 St. Austin asks: What will a sound faith profit a man, when the soundness of his charity is destroyed by the fatal wound of schism? He often repeats with St. Cyprian, that even martyrdom is not available to the salvation of a wilful heretic or schismatic. St. Vincent of Lerins makes no scruple to affirm, that Donatus and his followers, who did not expiate their crime by repentance, have their portion with the apostate angels. 25 Hence, the ancient fathers charge us not to make shipwreck of our faith, as we value our everlasting happiness, and they took so much pains to point to the rocks upon which so many have split, and to show the highway which Christ himself has chalked out; which is his true church. 26  7
Note 1. Rivet and Du Pin pretend the seventh book was written soon after by another hand. But the learned publisher of the new edition of the works of this father demonstrates it to have been written by him no less than the other six, though St. Jerom seems never to have seen it. The author of this seventh book assures us that he had written the former six: and the style bears so perfect a resemblance, that Casaubon affirms it to be impossible they should not be all the offspring of the same parent. [back]
Note 2. St. Optat. p. 41. [back]
Note 3. St. Aug. l. 3, contra Parmen. [back]
Note 4. L. 2, p. 52. [back]
Note 5. Haær. 60. [back]
Note 6. See Cod. Justin, tit. Hæret. et l. 2. [back]
Note 7. Hæret. fabul. [back]
Note 8. St. Optat. l. 1, n. 10. [back]
Note 9. N. 21. [back]
Note 10. L. 2, n. 1, p. 26. [back]
Note 11. Ib. 3, n. 3. [back]
Note 12. Ib. 2, n. 5 et 2. [back]
Note 13. L. 2, p. 28. [back]
Note 14. Ib. 4, pp. 73, 74. [back]
Note 15. Procateches. p. 7. [back]
Note 16. L. 2, De Nupt. et Concup. c. 29, et l. 5, Op. Impers. c. ult. [back]
Note 17. L. 2, p. 39. [back]
Note 18. Calices sanguinis Christi portitores. O scelus nefandum! facinus inauditum!—L. 6, n. 2, p. 93. [back]
Note 19. L. 2, p. 43. [back]
Note 20. Sancti corporis reos, dente vindice, tamquam ignotos et inimicos laniaverunt.—L. 2, c. 39. [back]
Note 21. L. 6, p. 93. [back]
Note 22. Ib. 6, n. 6. [back]
Note 23. Ib. 6, n. 4. [back]
Note 24. Ib. 1. [back]
Note 25. Commonit. [back]
Note 26. The ancient editions of the works of St. Optatus are very faulty, not excepting even that of Paris, in 1631, with notes, observations, and dissertations, by Aubespine, bishop of Orleans. The best and most exact of all, is that of Dupin, printed at Paris in 1700, at Amsterdam in 1701, and at Antwerp in 1702, in fol. See Oudin de Script. Eccles. t. 1, p. 579. [back]