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SAINT CYPRIAN

Bishop and Martyr, c. 210-258

 Not all saints, as we know, spend their lives in seclusion. Besides the hermits, monks, and nuns who lead a contemplative Christian life, there are many saints who were "men of action." Such a dynamic man was Saint Cyprian. Cyprian had a many-faceted personality. As a bishop he was perhaps the most illustrious figure of his age, and in the field of Church affairs and that of Christian morality, no one had a higher or more extensive influence than he. As a writer, he dominated the religious literature of his time and was one of the most read Fathers of the Church throughout the Middle Ages. As a man, he commanded great personal prestige. Cyprian was a public orator, literary scholar, lawyer; and after his conversion a priest, a bishop, and finally a martyr, the first martyr-bishop of Africa.

 Born in Carthage about the year 210, Cyprian grew to manhood and became active in the pagan life of that city. But when he was about 35 years old, he became weary of the vain ideals of his pagan world and disturbed at the uncertainties of its philosophy. Then he made friends with an old priest named Caecilian, who answered his queries about Christianity and led him to the Church. Not a man to do things half-way, the orator, teacher, and lawyer was completely changed. He began his pursuit of Christianity by making a vow of chastity. Selling his whole estate, he gave almost all he possessed for the support of the poor. He assigned himself the task of learning all he could about God.

 Cyprian's rise in Christian ranks was astoundingly swift. He was baptized, probably on the Vigil of Easter, in 246, and shortly after this was ordained a priest. So manifest was his virtue and authority in Carthage that soon he was named bishop of that city. His first reactions were refusal and an effort to escape, but the people surrounded his house. After a vain attempt to get out by a window, Cyprian yielded and was consecrated bishop in the last months of 248 or early in 249.

 All was peaceful for a short time, but when Emperor Decius ascended the Roman throne he began his reign by persecuting Christians. A pagan mob stormed Carthage, capital of proconsular Africa, shouting "Cyprian to the lions!" The bishop, however, had already retired to a secret hiding place, from which he directed the clergy and laity. Much adverse criticism was heaped upon him for leaving, but Cyprian felt justified in his action. Remaining in Carthage would have been sure death; his survival meant he could maintain discipline and repair the persecution's damage to his flock.

 The bishop continued to lead his flock, substituting letters for his presence. He exhorted Christians to pray without ceasing, urging prayer not only for individual persons but also for the unity and brotherhood of man. The prayers were surely heard, for the persecution slackened in 251.

 Not a compromising man, Cyprian was adamant when a matter of religion came into question. As a result of the great many apostasies that had taken place during the persecution, a serious disagreement arose among his priests and people in regard to the reconciliation of these lapsed Christians, many of whom had repented and now wanted to be reinstated in the Christian community. When Cyprian upheld the necessity of canonical penance and the possible reconciliation of all, a group of his clergy defied him and set up a schismatic community, and one of them even went to Rome and joined an anti-papal campaign. But the other African bishops upheld Cyprian at a synod, and approved the excommunication of the schismatic priests.

 Only a year after the persecution, Carthage was afflicted with a terrible plague. The poor and sick were ever under Cyprian's watchful care, and the public affliction served to emphasize his kindness.

 Acontroversy of the time in which Cyprian was concerned in the last years of his life concerned the validity of baptism by heretics. The Church in Africa had a traditional distrust of such rites, based upon a statement of Tertullian, and Cyprian reaffirmed this view. In this, Cyprian and the other bishops of Africa were mistaken, and Pope Saint Stephen sent a warning not to depart from the apostolic tradition, which held that one who had been baptized, even if by a heretic, must not be rebaptized. Cyprian was unable to see the dogmatic significance of this question and, concerned about the unity and discipline of his own community, never did change his mind. Nevertheless, the thing he always had at heart was the unity of the Church.

 Saint Cyprian was forewarned by God of the revival of persecution and of his own approaching martyrdom. In August 257, the first edict of Valerian forbidding Christians to assemble for worship was promulgated. The bishop of Carthage was tried and subsequently banished. A second trial by the proconsul Galerius Maximus in 258 resulted in his condemnation; Cyprian was to be beheaded. Texts of the trials show Cyprian calm and resolute, and when sentence was passed, he replied, "Thanks be to God."

 A tumultuous throng of Christians surrounded Cyprian at his death. Even then, he set an example for them: showing Christ-like forgiveness, the saint asked a friend to give his executioner twenty-five pieces of gold. After the beheading, his body was set up as an example or threat by the pagans. When night came, a procession of Christians carried their good bishop's body away, chanting prayers and praises at his burial. So ended the life of the versatile Cyprian, but not his name and fame.

 

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