Monday, June 04, 2007

St. Optatus of Milevis: The Original Apologist Against the Schismatics

It was to Peter that Jesus Christ declared, 'I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against thee.' By what right do you claim the keys—you who presume to contend against Peter's chair? You cannot deny that the episcopal chair was originally given to Peter in the city of Rome; that he sat there first as head of the Apostles ... The other apostles did not claim rival chairs, and only schismatics have ever ventured to do so. --St. Optatus' reply to the Donatists
Before Augustine, there was another Bishop of North Africa who defended our faith with vim and vigor, especially against a dude named Donatus. St. Optatus was his name, and today's saint did it so well, he not only had the respect of Augustine and his contemporaries, but his arguments are still making converts today.

Although little is known of Optatus' early life, he was thrust front and center quickly as Bishop of Milevis when a dispute broke out over who the true bishop of nearby Carthage was. It seems that Donatus, a popular but not-so-obedient priest, became so ticked off when he was not named the area's bishop that he and his group split off on their own. They repudiated the validity of ordination and as well as the sacraments of the Roman Church, claiming that they alone were the true church of Christ. The Donatists, as they were called, then elected their own "bishops," and one of those, Parmesian, thought himself a big enough cheese to set down a treatise staking their claim against the Church of Rome. It was at this point Optatus stepped in, politely but firmly putting his opponents in their place, but at the same time calling them back home.

Although Parmesian's document did not survive, we know the things the Donatists argued for were a non-universal church where their efficacy of the sacraments depended directly upon the holiness of the priest. In other words, since (in their judgement) Donatus was more devout than the bishop appointed by Rome, Rome's appointment must be faulty and the church set up by Donatus was thus the new true one. But Optatus (whose reply is still preserved) quickly countered with the question of how CAN the Donatists be the one true church when they represent only one small colony in Africa? Quite to the contrary, the true mark of the church MUST be its catholicity (universality) and that universal-ness has always been based on the papacy, which has always been based in Rome. As for the other question, Optatus spelled out the doctrine that the sacraments are holy in themselves, and do not depend on the efficacy of the priest. Otherwise a priest would have to be perfectly sinless or every time the sacrament was administered its grace would be in doubt.

Besides his powerful apologetics on those subjects, Optatus may have been the first to distinguish the difference between heretics—those who denied basic Christian dogma such as the Trinity or Christ's Divinity—and Schismatics—those who still believed the basic doctrines (and were therefore still Christians) but separated themselves on the basis of authority—which is what the Donatists did. We don't tend to phrase it as such, but Donatists were actually Protestants—the difference being that in those days, saints like Optatus and Ambrose and Augustine, through the combination of both wisdom and grace quickly settled such disputes in the minds of the faithful, and the divisions soon died out. Still, these early apologetics are useful for many modern-day Protestants who read the ancient history of the Church (including a former Methodist minister on EWTN's The Journey Home who was reading the story of Optatus and Donatus when he suddenly exclaimed, "My God! I am a Donatist!) and in doing so realize the error of their ways, and then return to the one holy Catholic and apostolic Church.

St. Optatus died in the year 387. Perhaps because his early life was not recorded, we do not hold him in the same breath as Ambrose and Augustine, but his many converted Donatists (not to mention Methodists) did—and do!

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