Melchiades (also known as Miltiades) became Bishop of Rome (pope) in 311 at a moment when profound events were shaking the world and the church. He lived only three years longer, but, although he did not die a martyr, he is included in the list of Roman martyrs. This was probably because he suffered under the fierce persecution of the Emperors Diocletian and Galerius. During that persecution, an earlier Bishop of Rome, Eusebius, was sent into exile. For a few months, there was no Bishop of Rome. It was Melchiades who replaced Eusebius.
Constantine rose to power and put an end to the persecution of the Christians. That is how it came to be that a new age for the church dawned while Melchiades was still pope. One of Constantine's early acts was to give the Lateran Palace to the popes. This became the center from which the Western church administered its affairs.
Melchiades was in the thick of that administration, because the first major split in the church occurred while he was Bishop of Rome. During the persecutions, some Christians handed over rare pieces of Scriptures to the government's agents in order to escape torture. This was considered betrayal by other Christians. After the persecution was over, these "weaklings" wanted back in the church.
Some Christians, who had suffered torture rather than give up copies of Scripture, said the failed Christians should only be let back in with severe penalties.
In North Africa, a number of Christians claimed that bishop Caecilian of Carthage had been consecrated by a traitor. Therefore, they argued that he was not a lawful bishop. These North Africans elected a bishop of their own. He soon died and Donatus took his place. The splinter sect that they formed became known as Donatists. The Donatists said they would break away from other Christians if Caecilian was not removed. Constantine asked Melchiades and another bishop to handle the matter. At the request of the Donatists, bishops from Gaul were included in the investigation. (Gaul had not suffered persecution and therefore was considered neutral on the issue of traitors.) Melchiades, the bishops from Gaul and some Italian bishops investigated the situation. They declared Caecilian the legitimate bishop.
The Donatists carried through their threat and broke away from the universal church, setting up rival bishops in North Africa. They became a thorn in Constantine's side. Because of his other involvements, he had to allow them to exist as an independent sect.
Melchiades condemned Donatus but said the other Donatist bishops could keep their offices if they returned to the universal church. St. Augustine, also a North African, later praised Melchiades' decision, calling it very moderate. But the Donatists claimed that Melchiades made the decision he made because he himself was a traitor--one of those who had delivered the Scriptures into the hands of the persecutors. St. Augustine said there was no grounds for this lie.
Melchiades died on January 10, 314, but for unknown reasons, his feast on the Roman Calendar is shown on this day, December 10th.
- Butler, Alban. "Pope Saint Miltiades." Various editions.
- "Condemnation by Pope Melchiades." http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/heresy05.htm
- "Donatism." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford, 1997.
- "Galerius." Encyclopedia Americana. Chicago: American Corp., 1956.)
- Kirsch, J. P. "Pope St. Miltiades." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1911.
- "Melchiades." Encyclopedia Britannica. (1911).