Deacon of Carthage who, in the middle of the third century, headed a short-lived but dangerous schism
Felicissimus, a deacon of Carthage who, in the middle of the third century, headed a short-lived but dangerous schism, to which undue doctrinal importance has been given by a certain class of writers, Neander, Ritschl, Harnack, and others, who see in it “a presbyterial reaction against episcopal autocracy”. Of the chief figure in the revolt, Felicissimus, not much can be said. The movement of which he was afterwards the leader originated in the opposition of five presbyters of the church in Carthage to St. Cyprian’s election as bishop of that see. One of these presbyters, Novatus, selected Felicissimus as deacon of his church in the district called Mons, and because of the importance of the office of deacon in the African Church, Felicissimus became the leader of the malcontents. The opposition of this faction, however, led to no open rupture until after the outbreak of the Decian persecution in 250, when St. Cyprian was compelled to flee from the city. His absence created a situation favorable to his adversaries, who took advantage of a division already existing in regard to the methods to be followed in dealing with those who had apostatized (lapsi) during persecution and who afterwards sought to be readmitted to Christian fellowship. It was easy under the circumstances to arouse much hostility to Cypria is because he had followedextremely rigorous policy in dealing with those lapsi. The crisis was reached when St. Cyprian sent from his place of hiding a commission consisting of two bishops and two priests to distribute alms to those who had been ruined during the persecution. Felicissimus, regarding the activities of these men as an encroachment on the prerogatives of his office, attempted to frustrate their mission. This was reported to St. Cyprian, who at once excommunicated him. relicissimus immediately gathered around him all those who were dissatisfied with the bishop’s treatment of the lapsi and proclaimed an open revolt. The situation was still further complicated by the fact that the thirty years’ peace preceding the Decian persecution had caused much laxity in the Church, and that on thefirst outbreak of hostilities multitudes of Christians had openly apostatized, or resorted to the expedient of purchasing certificates from the venal officials, attesting their compliance with the emperor’s edict. Besides this the custom of readmitting apostates to Christian fellowship, if they could show tickets from confessors or martyrs in their behalf, had resulted in widespread scandals.
While St. Cyprian was in exile he did not succeed in checking the revolt even though he wisely refrained from excommunicating those who differed from him in regard to the treatment of the lapsi. After his return to Carthage (251) he convoked a synod of bishops, priests, and deacons, in which the sentence of excommunication against Felicissimus and the heads of the faction was reaffirmed, and in which definite rules were laid down regarding the manner of readmitting the lapsi. The sentence against Felicissimus and his followers did not deter them from appearing before another council, which was held in Carthage the following year, and demanding that the case be reopened. Their demand was refused, and they sought to profit by the division in the Roman Church which had arisen from similar causes, except that in this case the charge of laxity was levelled against the orthodox party. This proceeding and the fact that the Council of Carthage had decided with so much moderation in regard to the lapsi, modifying as it did the rigoristic policy of Cyprian by a judicious compromise, soon detached from Felicissimus all his followers, and the schism disappeared.
PATRICK J. HEALY