The holy saints of God surround us with their prayers, with the examples of their earthly lives (and sometimes courageous deaths), with wise writings of benefit to their own time and to later generations. We do well to learn of these saints, these victorious warriors in the struggle for salvation, for by them, we are aided in our journey toward sanctification.
One of the holy fathers of the church who speaks to us from the second century of Christianity is St. Cyprian of Carthage. A convert to Christianity, St. Cyprian was influential in assuring a pastoral approach to those who had lapsed in the face of persecution, and he ultimately provided the supreme example of unwavering faith in his martyrdom in the year 258.
Born in Carthage (in North Africa) around 200, Cyprian was like many other great men who became leaders of the church in having a typical Roman education in rhetoric, logic, and philosophy. He was a teacher and lawyer when, in middle age, he converted to Christianity. At the time of his entrance into the church, he desired to make such a complete change in his life that he sold his possessions and gave his wealth to the poor and he gave up reading anything except scripture and Christian commentaries. He very soon was ordained priest and, in the year 248, was the choice of the people, the clergy, and neighboring bishops, to become bishop of Carthage.
At the beginning of Cyprian’s episcopacy, the first systematic persecutions of Christians began at the order of the Emperor Decius. Cyprian escaped, but wrote letters of encouragement and support to those of his flock remaining in Carthage. During this time, many Christians apostacized and made the required pagan sacrifices or bought documents which falsely stated that they had made the sacrifices. At the end of this wave of persecution, Cyprian’s treatment of those lapsed Christians was one of compassion and forgiveness. He accepted them back into full communion after a suitable period of penance. This was a controversial approach and church leaders were not unanimous in how to deal with this problem. Making matters worse, in 252, an outbreak of plague in Carthage was blamed by the pagan inhabitants on the Christians.
Another controversy arose in the church concerning the validity of baptisms performed by heretics or apostates. On this issue, St. Cyprian and other African bishops took the more conservative view and practiced re-baptism (a practice later condemned by the Church in responding to the heresy of Donatism). There was much bitterness in the church over this issue, but before unity of practice could be achieved, another persecution began.
The Emperor Valerian’s policies were intended particularly to strike at church leaders. Bishops, priests, and deacons were hunted out and required to participate in pagan worship. Showing the utmost steadfastness of faith, St. Cyprian refused and was first exiled from Carthage in 257. A year later, he was given a new trial and condemned to death on September 14.
An eyewitness account of the trial and execution tells of Cyprian being accused of “sacrilege”, of being part of a “conspiracy”, and of being an “enemy of the Roman gods and their sacred rites.” St.Cyprian, surrounded by his faithful flock, asked that 25 gold coins be given to the executioner; he was helped by others to tie the blindfold over his eyes; and he knelt to be beheaded and to receive the crown of martyrdom.
From St. Cyprian’s treatise on The Lord’s Prayer:
The Lord openly adjoined, added a law and bound us by a definite condition and promise that we might ask for our sins to be forgiven us according to the manner in which we ourselves forgive those who have sinned against us. We know that we are not able to obtain what we ask for concerning our sins unless we ourselves do likewise to those who sin against us. Therefore he says in another place, ‘By which measure you measure out, it will be returned to you’ [Mt. 7:2], and that servant who, after his entire debt had been cancelled for him by his master, did not want to cancel his fellow servant’s debt is thrown into prison. Because he did not wish to be generous with his fellow servant, he lost that which had been pardoned him by his master.
These things Christ now proposes more strongly in his precept by the greater force of his own authority. He says, ‘when you stand to pray, forgive whatever you have against anyone so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you your sins.’ [Mk. 11:25] No excuse remains for you on the day of judgment, since you will be judged according to your own sentence and what you have done, you will suffer yourself. God commands that we be at peace and in harmony and at one in His house. He wants those who have been reborn to remain such as He has made them by their second birth so that we, who are children of God, may remain in the peace of God and that those who have the one Spirit may be one in mind and heart. Thus God does not accept the sacrifice of one who is quarreling, but orders him to leave the altar and first go and be reconciled with his brother so that God, too, may be appeased by peaceful prayers. Our peace and fraternal harmony and a people gathered together by the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the greatest sacrifice we can offer to God.
Sources: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop N. Velimirović, The Lives of the Saints by Augustine Kalberer O.S.B., The Lives of the Saints by Fr. Alban Butler, and Introduction to the Fathers of the Church by Pier Franco Beatrice.