Above: Roman Province of Africa (highlighted)
Image in the Public Domain
SAINT MARCELLINUS OF CARTHAGE (DIED IN 413)
One of the more extended and unpleasant schisms in Western Christianity involved the Donatists. At the end of the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who retired in 305 C.E., the Imperium launched an empire-wide persecution of Christians. Many Christians, faced with the prospect of imprisonment or painful death, renounced the faith and gave up Bibles for burning. Others, however, went to prison or their deaths. Some of the northern African survivors of the Diocletian persecution developed a holier-than-thou attitude with regard to the repentant apostates who sought to return to the fold. The Roman Catholic Church forgave the penitents; the schismatic Donatists did not. The Donatist sect survived until the 700s, when the Muslims, conquering northern Africa, extinguished that group.
The Donatists were moral perfectionists, the purest of the self-proclaimed pure. The main problem with a purity test, of course, is that it affirms its author as pure and condemns as impure those with whom the author disagrees. A purity test is inherently exclusionary. And how many among us are pure enough to pass such a test? Fortunately, God shows mercy to penitents. We who claim to follow God should emulate that example.
Marcellinus was a a friend of St. Augustine of Hippo, the great bishop and theologian. He was also the Secretary of State of the Western Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Honorius, who held that office 395-423. Marcellinus, in his imperial capacity, granted the Donatists freedom of worship in 409. Two years later, when the Donatists had become powerful and begun to oppress Roman Catholics, the latter petitioned Honorius for protection from the former. The Emperor sent Marcellinus to preside over a conference at Carthage. The Secretary of State declared the Donatists heretics and ordered them to surrender their buildings to Roman Catholic bishops and priests. The Western Roman Army executed this order brutally.
Two years later, in 413, some Donatists, blaming Marcellinus for army brutality, accused the Secretary of State and his brother, Apringus, who had also been active in the Donatist matter in 411, of having been complicit in a recent rebellion against the Emperor. Heraclion, an African count, had led an insurrection against Honorius in the wake of Alaric’s 410 Sack of Rome. The Western Roman Army had suppressed the revolt and executed Heraclion. General Marcius, a Donatist sympathizer who had suppressed the recent rebellion, ordered the arrest and imprisonment of Marcellinus and Apringus. Their deaths on the false charge constituted judicial murder.
Gracious God, in every age you have sent men and women who have given their lives in witness to your love and truth. Inspire us with the memory of St. Marcellinus, whose faithfulness led to the way of the cross, and give us courage to bear full witness with our lives to your Son’s victory over sin and death, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 59