Caecilianus, or Caecilian, was archdeacon and then bishop of Carthage in 311 AD. When archdeacon, he resolutely supported his bishop Mensurius in opposing the fanatical craving for martyrdom. The Christianity of Northern Africa exhibited an extravagance in this respect which reached its height after Diocletian's persecution.
Nomination as bishop
On the death of Mensurius, Caecilianus was nominated as his successor. The part he had taken against the would-be martyrs was then brought up against him. The religious world of Carthage divided itself broadly into two sections, the moderate and rigoristic parties, or the supporters and opponents of the principles of Caecilianus. At the head of the latter was a devout and wealthy lady named Lucilla, who had been severely rebuked by the archdeacon for superstitious veneration for martyrs' relics.
Consecration by Felix
The rigoristic party wished to fill the vacant see with one of their own followers. Caecilianus' party hastened matters, and the archdeacon was consecrated by Felix, Bishop of Aptunga. Whether this was in the presence of any Numidian bishops or not seems uncertain.
Denunciation of Felix
Secundus, Primate of Numidia and Bishop of Tigisi, was presently invited to Carthage by the rigorist party. He came, attended by 70 bishops, and cited Caecilianus before them. Felix of Aptunga was denounced as a traditor and consequently it was claimed that any ordination performed by him was invalid.
Denunciation of Caecilianus
Caecilianus himself was charged with unnecessary and heartless severity to those who had visited the confessors in prison; he was denounced as a "tyrannus" and a "carnifex" - "butcher." He declined to appear before an assembly so prejudiced; but professed his willingness to satisfy them on all personal matters, and offered, if right was on their side, to lay down his episcopal office, and submit to re-ordination.
Excommunication of Caecilianus
Secundus and the Numidian bishops answered by excommunicating him and his party, and ordaining as bishop the reader Majorinus, a member of Lucilla's household.
The church of Northern Africa went into schism. The party of Caecilianus broke off from that of Majorinus, and the Christian world was scandalized by fulminations, excommunications, invectives, charges and countercharges. Both parties confidently anticipated the support of the state; but Constantine I, now emperor of this part of the Roman world, took the side of the Caecilianus. In his largesse to the Christians of the province, and in his edicts favourable to the church there, he expressly stipulated that the party of Majorinus should be excluded: their views were, in his opinion, the "madness" of men of "unsound mind." The rigoristic party appealed to the justice of the emperor, and courted full inquiry to be conducted in Gaul — at a distance from the spot where passions and convictions were so strong and one-sided.
Council in Rome
A Council in Rome met in 313 AD. presided over by Pope Miltiades who had as his assessors the bishops of Cologne, Arles and seventeen others. Caecilianus appeared with ten bishops; Donatus, Bishop of Casae Nigrae, in Numidia, headed the party of Majorinus. The personal charges against Caecilianus were examined and dismissed, and his party proclaimed the representatives of the orthodox Catholic church; Donatus himself was declared to have violated the laws of the church, and his followers were to be allowed to retain their dignity and office only on condition of reunion with Caecilianus' party. The bitterness of this decision was modified by Caecilianus' friendly proposal of compromise; but his advances were rejected, and the cry of injustice raised. It was wrong, the rigorists pleaded, that the opinion of twenty should overrule that of seventy; and they demanded first that imperial commissioners should investigate matters at Carthage itself, and that then a council should be summoned to examine their report, and decide upon its information.
Council of Arles
Constantine met their wish. Jurists went to Carthage, collected documents, tabulated the statements of witnesses, and laid their report before the bishops assembled at the Council of Arles in 314 A.D. This council, presided over by Marinus, bishop of Arles, and composed of about 200 persons, was the most important ecclesiastical assembly the Christian world had yet seen; and its decisions have been of permanent value to the church. As regarded Caecilianus personally, the validity of his ordination was confirmed, the charge raised against his consecrator, Felix, being proved baseless; and as regarded the general questions debated—such as traditor-ship, its proof or disproof; ordination by traditors, when valid or not; baptism and re-baptism—canons of extreme importance were passed.
Decision confirmed at Milan
The temper displayed by the victors was not calculated to soothe the conquered; and an appeal was at once made from the council to the emperor himself. Constantine was irritated; but, after some delay, ordered the discussion of the question before himself personally. This occurred at Milan in 316 AD. The emperor confirmed the previous decisions of Rome and Arles, and followed up his judgment by laws and edicts confiscating the goods of the party of Majorinus, depriving them of their churches, and threatening to punish their rebellion with death.
From this time the schism of the Northern African church lost its purely personal aspect, and became a stern religious contest on questions of discipline.
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