Cyprian of Carthage, martyred 238 AD

In 02 Apostolic Fathers on 2011/10/25 at 3:13 AM

Cyprian was born in Roman Africa to a wealthy and renowned noble pagan family.   After having lead a very evil life as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric, he converted in mid-life to Christianity.  One of his first acts was to dispossess himself of his enormous wealth by giving it all to the poor for he now looked on Christ as his master in charity.

He became a priest and later, Bishop of Carthage.  Believing he could best serve his flock by not being martyred, he fled his episcopal see and hid in the countryside, from where he wrote numerous letters of encouragement, support and spiritual guidance.

This persecution claimed the life of the pope and when the persecution ceased, the new pope asked Cyprian to explain why he had fled and abandoned his see, a decision which was greatly resented by some of the priests in his diocese.

Cyprian explained that he had concluded that the persecution would be brief and that he could guide the church from hiding rather than leaving it without a leader were he martyred.  In his defense, he sent the Roman clergy copies of the numerous pastoral letters he had written during his years in hiding in the country-side.

He had written all types of letters, ranging from settling controversies to converting heretics.  His voluminous correspondence revealed his mildness which was an asset in winning his enemies.

After Cyprian returned to Carthage,  a world-wide epidemic broke out in 252.  He instructed the Christians to serve both Christians and non-Christians alike.  Many a wealthy Christian turned his home into a hospital at the inspiration of Cyprian.

In a subsequent persecution, the pope was martyred and when the humble and unsophisticated bishop Cornelius was chosen, the theologian and rhetorician Novantius was miffed to have been passed over.  He declared himself pope and brought schism to the church.

Cyprian aided and supported Cornelius, the legitimate pope, in his struggles against Novantius, the anti-pope.  A synod of sixty bishops convened at Rome to support Pope Cornelius and excommunicated Novantius and his schismatics.

The next pope in the year ordered Cyprian and others to discontinue the practice of re-baptizing persons who had originally received baptisms from the Novantian heretics. The consistent position of the Church had been and still is that it is the power and action of Christ that confers baptism and its remission of original sin, and not the worthiness or unworthiness of the ministering priest or person administering the sacrament; the Church accepts as valid any baptism which invokes the Trinity.  Also, that baptism, ordination and episcopal consecration put permanent sacramental marks upon the soul, and therefore may never be validly repeated.

The pope specifically called for obedience on the matter by his authority as the successor of Peter and Cyprian refused to obey.  It is not known how the disagreement was resolved, but somehow it was  and Cyprian remained in close contact with Rome and it was Cyprian who wrote: “No one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church for his mother”.

When the new emperor Valerian, the last to successfully defend Rome from barbarians, began his rule, he was in great distress.  His advisors suggested that there was a greater need for unity in the empire.  So Valerian, who originally had seen the value of Christianity, was persuaded to order all the bishops to sacrifice to the pagan gods or be exiled to a remote place as the penalty imposed for non-compliance.

Cyprian was now in exile again.  During this banishment he foresaw his future martyrdom and when it came, he greeted it with the words: “Thanks be to God.”

His great desire to die for Christ was fulfilled as he exhorted crowds of his faithful in the truths of the faith.  Beheaded, he was buried with great solemnity, being mourned by Christians and pagans alike.

Tertullian, the rhetorician whom Cyprian had so admired wrote:  “The more often you mow us down, the more in numbers will grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”

Note: In the nineteenth century, Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote CALLISTA, a novel set in third century Carthage with the main character being Cyprian.  In chapter fifteen there is a historically accurate description of the world wide plague of locust that precipitated the world wide plague.  This description can be accessed in its entirety by clicking the following link: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/callista/chapter15.html


Usually, after major persecution a division of minds appeared among the clergy as to how to deal with the clergy or persons who had collaborated  in any way with the persecutors or avoided imprisonment, torture or martyrdom. The rigorist group demanded excommunication and deprivation of ecclesiastical office. The laxists were those who preferred re-admitting the lapsed after an appropriate amount of time and penance.

In 313 a new pope, and African, called a council in Rome.  Donatus, a bishop, had not only re-baptized but even re-consecrated lapsed bishops. His followers, called the Donatists  sought to win Emperor Constantine with an appeal: “Is it right for the Church to welcome prodigal children home again? Is there a limit to the mercy the Church should dispense in the name of Jesus Christ?” Constantine was appalled by the schism and would not take their side.

This essential to the times controversy continued to rage. The Donatists, Montanists, Tertullianists and many others continued to teach that the Christians who lapsed into mortal sin should not be readmitted to the Church, even if they were repentant.

Two bright lights in the Church brought ruin to themselves: Origin castrated himself and Tertullian went off on a tangent into schism and heresy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: