Feast Day of St. MaximilianThe First Conscientious Objector
St. Maximilian of Theveste, Martyr (Also known as Maximilian of Tebessa) Died 296. In the African churches of the late Roman Empire, it was not uncommon for liturgies to include readings from the acta and passios of martyrs. The one often included for Saint Maximilian is the authentic record of his trial in Numidia (now Algeria) and execution for refusing to be conscripted into the Roman army.
Maximilian resisted because he didn’t want to be tainted by the idolatry of wearing the emperor’s image around his neck. Maximilian also refused because he was a pacifist, perhaps one of the earliest conscientious objectors. There has long been a debate within the Church concerning the radical pacifism advocated by Our Lord and the less stringent, but more practical, position allowing self-defense and just war.
Prior to the Edict of Milan and the toleration of Christianity, Christians believed that bearing arms contradicted the Gospel. Tertullian, for example, prohibited military service. Saint Hippolytus said that it was impossible to be a soldier and a catechumen-as contradictory as being a prostitute and catechumen (at least part of his reasoning dealt with the association of soldiers with pagan gods and sacrifices).
The Church moderated its position. The Council of Arles (314) said that soldiers who left the army during peacetime would be excommunicated. About 295, the proconsul Dion went to Theveste to recruit soldiers for the third Augustan legion stationed there. At this time the Roman army was mainly volunteers, but sons of veterans were obliged to serve. Maximilian, the 21-year-old son of the Roman army veteran Fabius Victor, was presented to the recruiting agent. The advocatus Pompeianus, seeing that Maximilian would make an excellent recruit, asked for him to be measured: he was 5’10” tall.
The ensuing dialogue between the proconsul Dion and Maximilian has been preserved to this day. When asked his name, Maximilian replied, “Why do you wish to know my name? I cannot serve because I am a Christian.” Nevertheless, orders were given for him to be given the military seal. He answered, “I cannot do it: I cannot be a soldier.” When told he must serve or die, he said, “You may cut off my head, but I will not serve. My army is the army of God, and I cannot fight for this world,” it was pointed out to him that there were Christians serving as bodyguards for the emperors Diocletian and Maximian.
To this he replied, “That is their business. I am a Christian, too, and I cannot serve.” Dion then told Victor to correct his son. Victor, who had become a Christian like his son, said, “He knows what he believes, and he won’t change his mind.” Dion insisted, “Agree to serve and receive the military seal.” “I already have the seal of Christ, my God… I will not accept the seal of this world; if you give it to me, I will break it for it is worthless. I cannot wear a piece of lead around my neck after I have received the saving sign of Jesus Christ, my Lord, the son of the living God. You do not know Him; yet He suffered for our salvation: God delivered Him up for our sins. He is the one whom all Christians serve; we follow Him as the Prince of Life and Author of Salvation.”
Again Dion stated that there are other Christians who are soldiers. Maximilian answered, “They know what is best for them. I am a Christian and I cannot do what is wrong.” Dion continued, “What wrong do those commit who serve in the army?” Maximilian answered, “You know very well what they do.” Threatened with death if he remained obstinate, Maximilian answered, “This is the greatest thing that I desire. Dispatch me quickly. Therein lies my glory.” Then he added, “I shall not die. When I leave this earth, I shall live with Christ, my Lord.”
He was sentenced accordingly: “Whereas Maximilian has disloyally refused the military oath, he is sentenced to die by the sword.” Just before his execution, Maximilian encouraged his companions to persevere and asked his father to give his new clothes to the executioner. We are told that Fabius Victor “went home happily, thanking God for having allowed him to send such a gift to heaven.”
St. Maximilian, pray for us.