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The Pedant

De lapsis

Withdraw, withdraw; exite inde, pollutum nolite tangere; exite de medio ejus; mundamini, here fertis vasa Domini.

(Is 52.11)

When the persecution of Decius broke out in 250 AD, the times of the catacombs were long gone. Although poorly viewed and occasionally the target of attacks and abuses, Christian communities had spread throughout the empire, prospered also economically and counted members from all walks of life. The decision of the new sovereign to oblige all citizens to make a public sacrifice to the pagan gods was therefore all the more traumatic under penalty of torture, exile, the stripping of property and, in the most serious cases, death. Millions of Christians including nobles, landowners and high officials of the state were thus forced overnight to choose whether to offend their faith or lose everything.

That deciana was not born as a persecution. The emperor wanted to set up a mass consecration to pagan idols to restore traditional pietas and propitiate military victory against the barbarians who were pressing on the borders. The penalties reserved for the reluctant were an instrument of this project, for the realization of which the powerful imperial bureaucratic apparatus was used as never before. So that no one escaped the precept, the prescribed sacrifice had to take place in the presence of witnesses and a public official in charge of issuing a certificate ( libellus ) attesting to its fulfillment. Without libellus, one was outside society and the law.

According to historians and contemporaries, the number of those who actually lost their lives for the faith in those months was very small, as happened for example to Pope Fabiano . The Roman authorities did not escape the risk of creating new examples of holiness through martyrdom, so that they aimed rather at weakening and corrupting heterodox communities in order to assimilate them. Much more numerous were therefore the Christians who, in order to avoid the penalties announced, bent to pay homage to the pagan divinities. It was almost a mass apostasy which, once the edict fell, left a deep wound in early Christianity and raised the problem of how to deal with the many who asked to re-enter the Church despite having "slipped" ( lapsi ) into 'idolatry. Diatribes, councils and even the first schisms of Novatian and Felicissimo arose , which respectively judged the position of the papacy too accommodating or too severe.

Cyprian , bishop of Carthage and future martyr and saint, left us a testimony of those events in the epistles he addressed to the communities of the faithful from his secret exile. Returning to Carthage after the death of Decius, he entrusted to the pastoral letter De lapsis a comment and a judgment on the conduct of his brothers during the persecution. After giving thanks to God for the cessation of the danger and its short duration, so much so that it can be called a trial rather than a true persecution ("exploratio potus quam persecutio"), he first praises the confessores , that is, those who had openly professed Christians in the presence of the magistrates, facing the consequences. The homage that must be paid to those few and courageous witnesses, he adds, also applies to those who had finally succumbed under the unbearable torments. They had in fact sinned out of necessity, not out of will; they had bowed to punishment, not to the prospect of punishment ("nec excusat oppressum necessitas crimini, ubi crimen est voluntatis").

In controversy with the schismatic rigorists and Tertullian of De Fugue , Cyprian believes that the many reluctant ("stantium moltitudo") who, "firmly rooted in the heavenly precepts" and without fearing the promised punishments, should also be glorified. to the appointment set for the sacrifice, thus implicitly affirming their fidelity to Christ. In fact, if "the first victory is for those who, having fallen into the hands of the Gentiles, profess the Lord, the second is for those who retreat cautiously, keeping to God". Those who did not fulfill had to go into hiding, as Cyprian did and as he urges to do according to the teaching of the Scriptures: "yes, it was necessary to leave the homeland and suffer the loss of the patrimony" because "it is Christ who must not be left, it is the loss of salvation and of the eternal home that must be feared ”. Exile is not a defeat, he explains, but rather a condition for preparing and carrying out the divine will, even up to the last sacrifice. «In fact, since the crown depends on the degnation of God and cannot be received except at the appointed hour, whoever goes away remaining in Christ does not deny his faith, but awaits the time. On the other hand, whoever falls for not having gone, means that he has remained to deny Christ ”. Cyprian himself, after having escaped the first persecution, would have fallen a martyr a few years later under Valerian .

In the central part of the writing, the most painful and controversial, the bishop stigmatizes the behavior of the apostates and horrified records the readiness with which most of the brothers ("maximus fratrum numerus") had rushed to the sacrilegious appointment. Here they are "running on their own initiative to the forum, spontaneously hastening their [spiritual] death, as if they had longed to do so, as if they embraced the opportunity that was offered to them and that they had ardently desired". Sent back the following morning by the magistrates for lack of time, they insisted that they be received the same day. Having rushed to the "devil's altar" with a victim to be immolated, they did not realize that they themselves were the victims ("ipse ad aras hostia, victima ipse venisti") and that on that brazier they would have consumed "their salvation, their hope , their faith ".

Many, not content with having destroyed themselves, did their utmost to push their neighbors into their own ruin and, "so that nothing would be lacking in the accumulation of crimes", even the children were "forced or encouraged by their parents to lose what they had received" with baptism. Cyprian imagines the words with which these innocents would have exonerated themselves on the day of judgment, pointing the finger at those who had brought them into the world. Then follows a description of the tragic reactions suffered by some apostates, such as the case of a man who became mute "so that he could no longer beg for mercy" or of a woman who, having immediately taken advantage of the freedom granted to her to amuse herself at the spa, had found possession there and death. The author insists a lot on the corporal dimension of sin: the assumption of the sacrificed victim is an anti-Eucharist that spoils the soul by penetrating the organs, a reincarnation of the fruit of Eden, so that it is easy for him to put in opposition the "foods villains "with" heavenly foods "," touching the filthy thing, letting oneself be violated and soiled by poisoned flesh "with Eucharistic communion. Among the apostates who had approached the sacrament unrepentant, he reports, some had found ash or flames in place of the host, others had vomited it up, others had collapsed. Isolated episodes, it is true, but he warns that no one should therefore presume to go unpunished forever ("nec hic esse sine poena possunt quamvis necdum poena dies venerit") because "in the meantime some are struck so that the others are warned, the misfortune of a few is a example for everyone ".

Then there were some, called libellaticians , who, in order to avoid sanctions without materially committing sacrilege, had obtained the libellus to show to the authorities with corruption or by sending other people under a false identity. We know from the author's correspondence that various priests and even bishops had also resorted to these expedients. Their conduct is less serious, but nevertheless execrable ("hoc eo proficit ut sit minor culpa, non ut innocens conscientia"), because "that certificate is itself a confession of apostasy" and an act of submission to a human decree that violates God's laws. "How can someone who is ashamed or afraid of belonging to Christ be with Christ?" he asks himself.

The harshest words are reserved for apostates who, on their own initiative or because misled by bad shepherds "whose speech spreads like cancer and whose toxic and poisonous propaganda kills more than the persecution itself", claimed to return to communion with the Church without fulfilling the prescribed penances, thus demonstrating that he does not take into account the gravity of the sin or even presuming not to have committed any. This lightness renews and duplicates sacrilege, explains the Carthaginian, because whoever had trembled before men now does not tremble before God and "when he had to stand he prostrated himself, when he should instead prostrate and kneel, he remains standing". He therefore implores the faithful to "open their hearts to the awareness of the crime committed without despairing of divine mercy, but also without demanding instant forgiveness" dispensed by deviant clergy who offer "false promises of salvation". The duration and intensity of penance must be commensurate with the gravity of the sin ("quam magna delinquimus, tam granditer defleamus") and be reflected also in the acts and in the outward appearance, so that there is full "proof of the pain of a contrite soul. and repentant ».

In questioning the causes of such a sensational defeat, Cyprian considers the "long peace" granted to Christians who, now almost forgetting the latest great persecutions, had integrated themselves into imperial society, accumulating offices and assets. The relaxation of relations with the state authority was also accompanied by a relaxation of morals, "no devotion in the bishops, no integrity of faith in the priests, no mercy in works, no discipline in behavior". Faith had "languished, I would say almost asleep" and the communities had turned to trade: "everyone was trying to increase their wealth" with "insatiable greed" and many bishops, abandoning their divine offices, devoted themselves to investments, usury and other secular matters ("divina procuratione contempta procuratores rerum saecularium fieri").

The saint, who himself belongs to a wealthy family, does not consider social security and material well-being to be evils in themselves. They become such if they are objects of an attachment that disposes to the denial of God. He therefore believes that with the persecution "the Lord wanted to put his family to the test" and to issue a warning whose need was demonstrated precisely in the response given by believers. The latter, he explains, fell precisely because of the riches that kept them chained to the world and its conditions. The capitulation of the lapsis thus takes on a clear didactic sense:

Those who were tied to material goods could not have the freedom and readiness to withdraw. These were the fetters of those who remained, these the chains that prevented virtue, stifled faith, overwhelmed judgment and strangled the soul, so that those who clung to the things of the earth would become food and prey for the serpent that God condemned. to devour the earth.

Cyprian does not denounce a calculation, but a mistake, the folly of spending eternity to buy what will in any case be taken away from us ("whose enim non nascenti adque morienti relinquenda when?") And the distrust in divine Providence which through the mouth of Christ ensures "Multo plura in hoc tempore" to those who leave mortal treasures for God (Lk 18,29-30, C. quotes from memory and writes "septies tantum"). The lesson of asceticism is also a lesson in logic: economic "independence" is on balance its opposite, a dependence on who can grant, protect and revoke it, on the temporal master who can also put it at the price of dignity, or of the soul. The essence of the Christian dialectic thus emerges from the disorder of persecution, the opposition between the worldly passage and the heavenly vocation, the non-being of the world and therefore hated by the world (Jn 17:14) and the consequent certainty that earthly gifts are they discount with the coin claimed by those who offered invincibility and satiety in the desert: "I will give you all these things, if, prostrating yourself, you adore me" (Mt 4: 1-11).

This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Il Pedante at the URL http://ilpedante.org/post/de-lapsis on Wed, 22 Dec 2021 12:27:34 PST.