Reflecting on the selfless example and charity of St. Cyprian

Father John A. Kiley

St. Cyprian was born into a rich pagan Carthaginian family in North Africa, probably about the year 200 A.D. Before his conversion, he was a leading member of a legal fraternity in Carthage and a teacher of rhetoric. After a dissipated youth, Cyprian was baptized when he was 35 years old. After his baptism, he gave away a portion of his wealth to the poor of Carthage. Not long after his baptism he was ordained a deacon, and soon afterwards, a priest. Sometime between July 248 and April 249 A.D., he was elected bishop of Carthage, a popular choice among the poor. However, his rapid rise did not meet with the approval of senior members of the clergy in Carthage, an opposition that did not disappear during his episcopate.
Cyprian was one of the earliest Church fathers to enunciate clearly and unambiguously the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, the idea that salvation happens at and by water baptism duly administered. Cyprian believed that the Bishop of Rome, the see of Peter, is the direct heir of St. Peter. He also believed that all the apostles were equal and that bishops followed the Apostles in succession. Not long after this election, the Church community was severely tested. Christians in North Africa had not suffered persecution for many years; the Church was assured and lax. In early 250 A.D., Emperor Decius issued an edict ordering sacrifices to the gods throughout the Empire. Cyprian chose to go into hiding rather than face potential execution. Some clergy saw that decision as a sign of cowardice, but Cyprian defended himself by saying that he had fled in order not to leave the faithful without a shepherd during the persecution and that his decision to continue to lead them from a distance was in accord with divine will. The persecution was especially severe at Carthage. Many Christians fell away and were referred to as “lapsed.” The majority had obtained signed statements certifying that they had sacrificed to the Roman gods to avoid persecution or confiscation of property. Cyprian found these especially cowardly and demanded that they undergo public penance before being readmitted to the Church. Some priests however disregarded his wishes by readmitting the lapsed to Communion with little or no public penance. Some of the lapsed presented statements bearing the signature of some notable martyr or confessor who had the spiritual prestige to reaffirm individual Christians. That system clearly constituted a challenge to the institutional authority of the bishop. Hundreds or even thousands of the lapsed were readmitted that way against the wishes of Cyprian and the clergy who insisted upon earnest repentance.
A schism then broke out in Carthage, as the lapsist party, led largely by the priests who had opposed Cyprian’s election, attempted to block measures taken by him during his period of absence. By letter, he convoked a council of North African bishops at Carthage to consider the treatment of the lapsed. Cyprian took a middle course between those who favored welcoming back all with little or no penance, and those who would not allow any of those who had lapsed to be reconciled. The council in the main sided with Cyprian. At the same time, the rigorist party in Rome, who refused reconciliation to any of the lapsed, elected an anti-pope in opposition to Pope St. Cornelius. A rival was also secured as a competing bishop at Carthage. Cyprian now found himself wedged between lapsists and rigorists. The polarization highlighted the firm but moderate position adopted by Cyprian and strengthened his influence. Moreover, his dedication during the time of a great plague and famine gained him further popular support.
Cyprian comforted his brethren by writing, exhorting them to active charity towards the poor and set a personal example. He defended Christianity and countered pagan claims that Christians were the cause of public calamities. In late 256 A.D., a new persecution of the Christians broke out under Emperor Valerian. Pope Sixtus II was executed in Rome. In Africa, Cyprian prepared his people for the expected persecution and set an example when he was brought before the Roman proconsul. He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Christ. The proconsul banished him. To the best of his ability, he comforted his flock and his clergy. After a year he was recalled and kept a prisoner in his residence. Then a new and more stringent imperial edict arrived which demanded the execution of all Christian clerics. On 13 September 258 A.D., Cyprian was imprisoned on order of proconsul, Galerius Maximus. His execution was carried out at once in an open spot near the city. A multitude followed Cyprian on his last journey. He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down and prayed. He blindfolded himself and was beheaded by the sword. The body was interred by Christians near the place of execution. Cyprian’s martyrdom was followed by the martyrdom of eight of his fellow clergy in Carthage.