on the African Popes
According to the Liber Pontificalis, three
popes-Pope St Victor I (ca186-198), Pope St Miltiades (311-14), and Pope
St Gelasius (492-496)-were Africans. The Liber Pontificalis is composed
of a series of biographical entries, which record the dates and
important facts for each pope. It is the oldest and most detailed
chronicle dating from the Early Church. The Liber Pontificalis is dated
from the sixth century. The record of names begins with St Peter. As the
work progressed the entries became longer and more detailed. The Liber Pontificalis
continued to be written until 1431.1
The African popes in question are said to
have come from the North African area that is present-day Algeria,
Mauretania, Numidia, and Tunisia. Historians name this area the maghreb.
Today it is mostly Muslim. The indigenous people of North Africa are
Berbers, brown skinned as among the Tuaregs and Algerians. By the time
of Pope Victor I, the Roman aristocracy had large land holdings on the
Mediterranean coast. Carthage was the center.2 The language was Latin.
The Berbers lived in the rural areas and the larger towns. Carthage was
the primacy. Small scattered dioceses in the rural areas. The indigenous
population, the Berbers, gradually accepted Christianity, but the
details of evangelization are unclear.
Most historians today are of the opinion
that Victor was a North African. He was the first Latin-speaking pope.
He had to be persuaded to permit the Asian Churches of Syria to continue
celebrating Easter on the 14th day of Nisan. Victor had desired to force
the Asian churches to accept the Roman method of calculating the
celebration of Easter, that is the first full moon on the Sunday after
the vernal equinox. Contemporary with Victor I was Tertullian, the North
African writer, who reworked Latin for expressing second-century
theology. Just after the death of Victor I, St Perpetua and St Felicity
underwent their martyrdom in Carthage (Perpetua was from the landowner
class; Felicity the slave). The Scillian martyrs, first African martyrs
put to death in Carthage just prior to the pontificate of Victor, with
St Cyprian, the great bishop and martyr of Carthage martyred in 258 half
a century after Victor. As one historian writes, it was "remarkable…
that Latin should have won recognition as the language of African
Christianity from the outset, while the Roman church was still using
Greek."3 Although martyrdom was the great seal of African Christianity,
most historians have concluded that Victor I was not martyred in Rome.
St Miltiades (311-14) is the second pope
identified as an African. The Liber Pontificalis names him as born in
Africa. More recent scholars consider that Miltiades was probably from
an African family in Rome. In fact, Miltiades was pope in Rome at the
time of the victorious battle of the Milvian Bridge when Constantine the
Great defeated and killed Maxentius. With this victory, Constantine
opened the way to the end of persecution of Christians. Miltiades is not
recorded as making any intervention in drawing up the Edict of Milan
that recognized the freedom of religion for all peoples. When the
Donatists in North Africa had recourse against the Catholic Church,
Constantine asked Miltiades to listen to their complaints. At this time
the opposition in North Africa are called Donatists. They are the poor
and the peasants. They make up the opposition to the well-to-do
landholders. At present there is much study of the Donatists. These
people are Berbers not Romans. Miltiades called a synod of bishops to
examine the case. Historians have considered that Miltiades, seemingly
an African, was chosen precisely because he had connection with the
Church in North Africa.4
More recent historical studies consider that
the question of Donatism in North Africa are not only doctrinal but also
sociological, economic, and political factors. The schism continued
after the death of Miltiades.
Finally, St Gelasius (492-496) is called an
African in the Liber Pontificalis. In another document, Gelasius
referred to himself as "born a Roman." It is suggested that he was of
African family origin. He is known especially for his strained
relationship with the Byzantine emperor Anastasius in Constantinople.
Gelasius I unequivocally proclaimed his authority as pope over that of
the emperor. The collection of liturgical prayers that bear his name
belong to the seventh century.5
- See The Liber Pontificalis. Texte, Introduction et Commentaire. Ed.
Abbé L. Duchesne. 3 volumes. Paris: E. de Boccard, Editeurs. 1955.
The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis). The Ancient Biographies
of the First Ninety Roman Bishops To A.D.715. Trans. Raymond Davis.
Liverpool University Press, 1989.
- See J. Desanges, "The Proto-Berbers" in the General History of
Africa. II. Ancient Civilizations of Africa. Ed. G. Mokhtar.
(Heinemann, CA: UNESCO. ) 423-440.
- A. Mahjoubi, "The Roman and post-Roman period in North Africa,"
See also: Victor Saxer, Pères saints et culte Chrétien dans l'Eglise
des premiers siècles. "Victor. Titre d'honneur ou nom propre.."
(VARIORUM 1994 Collected Studies Series CS446.) I, 217.
The Papacy. An Encyclopedia. s.v. "Victor I (189-99)." By
W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press, 1984) 290-91.
Finally, for the most recent studies, see Maureen A. Tillet, "North
Africa" in The Cambridge History of Christianity. Origins to
Constantine. Eds. Margaret Mitchell and Frances Young. 381-396.
(Cambridge University Press, 2006.)
- Frend, Rise of Christianity, 490-91. See also The Papacy. An
Encyclopedia. s.v. "Miltiades (or Melchiades)." By Elisabeth Paoli.
See also Dictionnaire d'Histoire et de Géographie Ecclésiastiques.
s.v. "Donat de Carthage." By J. Ferron.
- The Papacy. An Encyclopedia. s.v. "Gelasius I." By Claire Soliner.
Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Ph.D.
Professor, Church History
St Meinrad School of Theology
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