Diocletian Persecution and Donatism

[WARNING: High-level difficulty quiz. Might need a Catholic Encyclopedia]

Cosmas Damian apse
mosaic depicting Sts Peter and Paul ushering Sts. Cosmas and Damien into heaven

Today, at the altar, we remember the martyrs Cosmas and Damien, who went to their deaths during the persecution of the Emperor…


Ironically enough, Diocletian appears to have ordered the persecution precisely because he had such piety. As a pagan.

He believed that the Roman Empire would thrive if everyone participated in the cult of the gods, and that the empire would collapse if they did not.

What provoked the crisis was the emperor styling himself as divine, according to the pagan system. Christians soldiers then refused to wear their insignia, because it depicted the emperor as a god. And they refused to take their oaths, because it referred to the emperor as a god.

From that starting point, widespread hideous cruelties against Christians began. The pope was martyred, and the Church couldn’t elect a successor for… how long? Three years. Countless bishops and clergymen were martyred for refusing to hand over the Scriptures for desecration.

This gave rise to which heresy and schism? …Donatist.

Some sly bishops tricked their way out of getting martyred by handing over heretical, non-canonical Scriptures, instead of actual Bible books. The pagan authorities didn’t know the difference, and those bishops squeaked through.

After the persecution finally ended, the Donatists denied the validity of the ordination of the bishops who tricked their way through. The Donatists insisted that if they were real priests, they would have willingly gone to their deaths.

The schism lasted for over 100 years. To finally resolve the issue, it took someone as clever and enterprising as…?

St. Augustine.

A couple morals of this little story

1. We can’t worship the President of the US, or any political leader—or even religious leader. He may be right or wrong about this or that, just like all fallible human beings. We fallible human beings help each other stay honest by challenging assertions that appear to be wrong. (Only exception: Pope of Rome speaking ex cathedra on faith or morals.)

And Moral of the Story #2. We have had big, confusing, painful messes in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church before. And, by God’s grace, we managed to survive.

Holy Thursday Reflections from the Unworthy Dunderhead


1. In the upper room, Christ gave us the Holy Eucharist of His Body and Blood, extended Himself with breathtakingly humble love towards His companions, and made them priests of His holy mysteries.

His gifts of divine love, of His own flesh and blood, and of the ministry of this gift: It’s all pretty clear, there at the source–on this holy night almost twenty centuries ago.

But, as centuries pass, things that started out clear can become obscured. Difficult situations can then lead to helpful clarifications.

During the fourth century, the emperor Diocletian condemned Catholic priests to death. Some priests faced the prospect of summary execution with heroic courage. Many did not; they apostasized.

When the persecution ended, some Catholics said: The cowardly priests can’t be priests anymore! A priest must be holy! Their Masses are no good!

Anyone know what this Church controversy was called? The Donatist schism. The Donatists held that the ministry of an un-holy priest is nothing, fruitless, pointless, a charade.

missale-romanum-white-bgNow, a priest should always seek holiness, of course. But: If a vain, impatient, feckless, easily-distracted, oversized dunderhead priest, who hardly deserves to serve as a waterboy for a Little-League team with a losing record–if even such a priest says a Mass, as happens regularly in the Martinsville-Rocky Mount parish cluster–the bread and wine still become the Body and Blood of Christ. So long as the priest manages to say and do what’s in the book.

Anyone know what that’s called? Very important Latin phrase… ex opere operato. By the work being worked, the grace is given. The minister of the grace may be hopelessly unworthy. Doesn’t matter. It’s still the Body and Blood of God.

Which brings me to reflection #2. Dunderhead that I am, it took me a few years of actually doing it to realize what the key to “priestly spirituality” is. “The key” in my opinion, anyway.

The Lord Jesus prayed, celebrated Passover, and, as He did so, gave us the Holy Eucharist.

From the beginning, we have repeated Christ’s words of institution as part of a longer prayer, called the _________ _________.

Always addressed to our heavenly Father, always imploring Him to send the Holy Spirit. The prayer of the Church united as one, we pray for every member of the Church, and for everyone on earth, and for all the souls in purgatory–that all of us sinners would find mercy, and get to heaven, and share the bliss of the Kingdom.

A rough summary of the Eucharistic Prayer–but pretty accurate, I think. That’s the prayer that the Church as a mother intends for the priest to say, and for everyone else to join in with an interior sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, and petition.

Now, the priest must recite the Eucharistic Prayer, whether he personally ‘means’ it or not. The priest’s head might be full of high-school basketball memories or plans for buying a new car. But praying the Eucharistic Prayer is our job, we priests.

The key to ‘priestly spirituality,’ I think, is… (It’s so simple and obvious, it took me, obtuse as I am, years to grasp it.) My personal spiritual task, as the priest, is: to mean the Eucharistic Prayer when I say it.

I say it as a duty. And I strive to say it because it’s exactly what I mean. I strive to want to say to God exactly what the Eucharistic Prayer says. I strive to will and hope and pray for what the Eucharistic Prayer wills and hopes and prays for.

That He would send His Holy Spirit so we can feed on Him; that He would unite us and fill us with His divine love, sinners that we are; that He would draw everyone to Himself, and lead us all to the perfect life of heaven.