Saint Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr

September 16

Today is the feast day of Saint Cyprian.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Cyprian was an African of noble birth, the son of a Roman senator.  He was a teacher of rhetoric in his youth, but he was still a pagan. In his mid-life he was converted to Christianity through the influence of a priest who was himself a convert to Christianity and was edifying all Carthage by his conversation and his virtues. A long combat followed for Cyprian, who although convinced of the truth of these excellent reasonings and the beauty of this doctrine, still had to overcome the pride of a philosopher and the worldly bent of his life of pleasure. Nonetheless, grace won out and he listened to the interior voice of conscience which constantly pressed him onward: Courage, Cyprian! Whatever the cost, let us go to God. He sold his estates and gave the price to the poor; and it was not long after his baptism that he was ordained a priest, and then consecrated Bishop of Carthage notwithstanding his resistance. The Christian population rejoiced, sure that in him they would have a strong bulwark during persecution.

St. Cyprian, in a famous dispute, was once opposed to the Apostolic See: Eternal Wisdom now offers him to the homage of the world, in company with one of the most illustrious successors of St. Peter.

At thy side, how great is St Cyprian himself! What a path of light is traced across the heavens of Holy Church by this convert of the priest Caecilius! In the generosity of his soul, when once conquered to Christ, he relinquised honors and riches, his family inheritance, and the glory acquired in the field of eloquence. All marvelled to see in him, as his historian says, the harvest gathered before the seed was sown. By a justifiable exception, he became a Bishop while yet a neophyte. During the ten years of his episcopate, all men, not only in Carthage and Africa, but in the whole world, had their eyes fixed upon him; the pagans crying: Cyprian to the lions! The Christians awaiting but his word of command in order to obey. Those ten years represent one of the most troubled periods of history. In the empire, anarchy was rife; the frontiers were the scene of repeated invasions; pestilence was raging everywhere: in the Church, a long peace, which had lulled men’s souls to sleep was followed by the persecutions of Decius, Gallus, and Valerian. The first of these, suddenly bursting like a thunderstorm, was the occasion of the fall of many; which evil, in its turn, led to schisms, on account of the too great indulgence of some, and the excessive rigor of others, toward the lapsed.

Who, then, was to teach repentance to the fallen, the truth to the heretics, unity to the schismatics, and to the sons of God prayer and peace? Who was to bring back the virgins to the rules of a holy life? Who was to turn back against the Gentiles their blasphemous sophisms? Under the sword of death, who would speak of future happiness, and bring consolation to souls? Who would teach them mercy, patience, and the secret of changing the venom of envy into the sweetness of salvation? Who would assist the martyrs to rise to the height of their divine vocation? Who would uphold the confessors under torture, in prison, in exile? Who would preserve the survivors of martyrdom from the dangers of their regained liberty?

St. Cyprian, ever ready, seemed in his incomparable calmness to defy the powers of earth and of Hell. Never had a flock a surer hand to defend it under a sudden attack, and to put to flight the wild boar of the forest. And how proud the shepherd was of the dignity of that Christian family, which God had entrusted to his guidance and protection! Love for the Church was, so to say, the distinguishing feature of the Bishop of Carthage. In his immortal letters to his “most brave and most happy brethren,” confessors of Christ, and the honor of the Church, he exclaims: “Oh truly blessed is our Mother the Church, whom the divine condescension has so honored, who is made illustrious in our days by the glorious blood of the triumphant martyrs; formerly white by the good works of our brethren, She is now adorned with purple from the veins of Her heroes; among Her flowers, neither roses nor lilies are wanting.”

Unfortunately this very love, this legitimate, though falsely applied, jealousy for the noble Bride of our Savior, led St. Cyprian to err on the serious question of the validity of heretical baptism. “The only one,” he said, “alone possesses the keys, the power of the Spouse; we are defending Her honor, when we repudiate the polluted water of the heretics.” He was forgetting that although, through Our Lord’s merciful goodness, the most indispensable of the Sacraments does not lose its virtue when administered properly by a stranger, or even by an enemy of the Church, nevertheless it derives its fecundity, even then, from and through the Bride; being valid only through union with what She Herself does. How true it is, that neither holiness nor learning confers upon man that gift of infallibility, which was promised by Our Lord to none but the true Successors of St. Peter. It was, perhaps, as a demonstration of this truth, that God permitted this passing cloud to darken so lofty an intellect as St. Cyprian’s. The danger could not be serious, or the error lasting, in one whose ruling thought is expressed by these words: “He that keeps not the unity of the Church, does he think to keep the Faith? He that abandons the See of Peter whereon the Church is founded, can he flatter himself that he is still in the Cburch?”

Great in his life, St. Cyprian was still greater in death. Valerian had given orders for the extermination of the principal clergy; and in Rome, Pope St. Sixtus II, followed by his Deacon, St. Laurence, had led the way to martyrdom. Galerius Maximus, proconsul of Africa, was then holding court at Utica, and commanded St. Cyprian to be brought to him. But the Bishop would not allow “the honor of his Church to be mutilated,” by dying at a distance from his episcopal see. He therefore waited till the proconsul had returned to Carthage, and then delivered himself up by making a public entrance into the city.

In the house which served for a few hours as his prison, St. Cyprian, calm and unmoved, gathered his friends and family for the last time round his table. The Christians hastened from all parts to spend the night with their pastor and father. Thus, while he yet lived, they kept the first vigil of his future Feast. When, in the morning, he was led before the proconsul, they offered him an armchair draped like a bishop’s throne. It was indeed the beginning of an episcopal function, the pontiff’s own peculiar office being to give his life for the Church, in union with the eternal High Priest. The interrogatory was short, for there was no hope of shaking his constancy; and the judge pronounced sentence that St. Cyprian must die by the sword. On the way to the place of execution, the soldiers formed a guard of honor to the Bishop, who advanced calmly, surrounded by his clergy as on days of solemnity. Deep emotion stirred the immense crowd of friends and enemies who had assembled to assist at the sacrifice. The hour had come. The pontiff prayed prostrate upon the ground; then rising, he ordered 25 gold pieces to be given to the executioner, and, taking off his tunic, handed it to the deacons. He himself tied the bandage over his eyes; a priest, assisted by a subdeacon, bound his hands; while the people spread linen cloths around him to receive his blood. Not until the Bishop himself had given the word of command, did the trembling executioner lower his sword. In the evening, the faithful came with torches and with hymns to bury St. Cyprian. It was September 14 in the year 258. (1)

Image: Saint Cyprian, artist: Meister von Meßkirch, circa 1535/40 (5)

  Saint Cyprian

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