The See of Carthage

It seems altogether fitting to pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on Friday for the See of Carthage.  Once a mighty fortress of the Catholic Church it has long been reduced to ruins and desolation.  This is the land that gave us the great doctor St. Augustine, the great pastor St. Cyprian, and the great mind of Tertullian.  Latin was used in the Liturgy in North Africa while the Greek of the East was still used at Rome.  This See of Carthage had such a towering influence on the Catholic Church, yet in our day and time Islam dominates the region to such an extent that it is possible to travel through these lands and not see a hint that any Christian had ever even set foot there, much less that they were a cradle of the ancient Church.  What happened?

The city of Carthage lay at the northern tip of Africa some 130 miles across the Mediterranean from Sicily and just north of the city of Tunis, the current capital of Tunisia.  It was founded by Phoenician settlers from Lebanon during the early part of the first millennium before Christ.  Carthage developed into a powerful city state that fought three brutal wars with Rome for mastery of the Mediterranean during the third and second centuries B.C. that ended in its defeat and destruction in the year 146 B.C.  Refounded by Roman colonists a century later the city of Carthage and the province of Africa quickly became one of the wealthiest and most Latinized and Romanized regions of the Empire.

Ruins of second century Roman baths in Carthage with the Gulf of Tunis and the hills of Cape Bon in the background. (Photo taken by me October 27, 2009)

Ruins of second century Roman baths in Carthage with the Gulf of Tunis and the hills of Cape Bon in the background. (Photo taken by me October 27, 2009)

The beginnings of the Church in Carthage are unknown but by the end of the second century A.D. it seems to have been thriving.  This was the age of Tertullian the first great Latin theologian who, though he fell into error, did much to strengthen the spines of the faithful in Africa throughout a trying period: this also was the age of the celebrated martyrs Felicity and Perpetua who suffered death in the arena of Carthage on March 7, 203 A.D and March 7 remains the feast day of these two martyrs and their companions.

St. Cyprian (Feast Day September 16) followed a half a century later and guided the Carthaginian church through the persecution launched by the Roman emperor Decius in the middle of the third century and who was martyred himself in 257 A.D. under the emperor Valerian.  The See of Carthage persevered to the age when the Edict of Milan brought peace to the Church throughout the Empire and went on to produce, from its outlying regions, the great doctor St. Augustine of Hippo who set the Western Church on the course that was to guide it through the tumult of the collapse of the Roman Empire on to our own day.

Despite this great roll call of saints the church of Carthage and North Africa was plagued by schism and division throughout its life.  Tertullian himself fell into the error of Montanism, followed came the century long battle with the Donatist heresy from which the See of Carthage never really recovered.  During the fifth century A.D. the tribe of Vandals from eastern Europe came storming through Gaul and Spain and arrived in North Africa.  They conquered the province of Africa in 429 A.D., wresting it from Roman control for the first time in 600 years, and sounded the death knell of the Western Roman Empire by cutting off the grain supply from Africa to Italy.  More important for the See of Carthage they brought their Arianism, the heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus Christ and that took hold with many of the barbarian tribes at this time, with them.  The religion of Arius was the religion of the ruling class, while the population as a whole remained Catholic.  Another source of division was added to a province already plagued by schism.

After a century of Vandal rule the Catholic emperor Justinian in Constantinople reconquered Africa but the province’s greatness religiously, politically, and economically was now in the past.  It lingered under the Byzantines until Islam came like lightning out of the desert in the middle of the seventh century.  Carthage was largely cut off from Constantinople by the Arab conquest of the Levant and of Egypt though it was separated from those lands by vast swathes of desert and ocean.  Eventually though the Muslims did make their way to Carthage, conquering the city in 698 A.D.

The city of Carthage itself fell into ruins when the Arabs founded Kairouan and then Tunis.  The Church dwindled from over 400 bishops at its height under the Roman Empire to a mere 5 just before the era of the Crusades, and then it disappears from history.  Some small remnant must have remained for a time after that but history does not remember them.  The See of Carthage fell into abeyance.  It is true that it was restored for a time, during the 19th century when the French colonized Algeria and Tunisia, but the Church unfortunately came with the occupiers and when they left if followed.  The Church was never able to make a dent among the Muslim populations of North Africa during the century of French colonial rule.  Today whatever church buildings that exist here are used only by foreigners on holiday.  There is at present an Archdiocese of Tunis, presided over by the current Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal.  The rest of the ancient dioceses and bishoprics of this once fruitful land are now only titular sees once described by the term in partibus infidelium.

Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on Friday for the See of Carthage, for its liberty and its salvation, and the restoration of its ancient position as a pillar of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

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