There Once was a Bishop of Carthage…

There are four saints in our church calendar with the name Cyprian, and even more in other local calendars. Today we celebrate the memory of St Cyprian of Carthage, Bishop & Martyr, and Father of the Church.

What do we know about St Cyprian?

Well, quite a bit, actually. He was born near the beginning of the 3rd century into a noble family in North Africa, likely from among the Berber peoples, and was named Thascius. He was a lawyer and orator, and highly respected among his peers.

In his mid-40s , Thascius came to Christ, and accepted baptism, taking the name Caecilius. As a new Christian from an affluent background, he was filled with repentance at his former lavish and pagan lifestyle, and gave away a significant portion of his wealth to the poor.

After his conversion, Caecilius progressed quickly through the ranks of the diaconate and the priesthood until, within a few short years of his baptism, he was elected and consecrated as bishop of Carthage, taking the name Cyprian.

Ruins of ancient Carthage

Despite being young in the faith, Bishop Cyprian’s spiritual maturity and zeal for the Church place his writings among the greatest Christian treasures of the pre-conciliar era.

He understood that the Church is the Saviour’s extension of Himself in the world, and the mystical means that God provides for us whereby we can participate in the life of the Trinity. This understanding lies behind all of his actions and shines through his writings. It is St Cyprian who famously wrote:

Outside the Church there is no salvation.

Letter LXXIII

and

He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.

On the Unity of the Catholic Church, Chapter VI

As bishop, he was a true father to his people and he fought tirelessly against the heretical groups that broke away from the Church in his day, whose baptism he referred to as “counterfeit baptism” and being “stained… with a defiling deluge of pagan water” (Letter LXXIII). He certainly didn’t mince his words.

While some of St Cyprian’s words might sound harsh to our modern ears, formed as we are in an era of pluralism and tolerance, we must remember that he was writing at a time when to be a Christian in the Roman Empire could mean torture and death. It was a time when those who drew people away from the Church by causing division through the introduction of false teachings were traitors in a very immediate way.

Also, while the later Ecumenical Councils expressed a more nuanced view of baptisms performed outside of the Church, St Cyprian was writing before this period, while many of the exact expressions of matters of faith which we take for granted today were still unsettled. Remember, the Creed hadn’t even been written yet!

One thing that is clear is that St Cyprian’s motivation was always the pastoral care for the people entrusted by God to his care, to ensure that they were not lured away from Christ by this or that heretical breakaway group purporting to be the Church, but that they remained safely within the Church of Christ, the Ark of Salvation.

An excavated baptismal font in the ruins of Carthage

Persecutions

Perhaps the most significant events of the episcopate of St Cyprian were the persecutions of his flock at the command of the pagan Roman emperors. For much of its history, the Roman empire had been a place of religious pluralism. As various lands and cultures were absorbed into the empire, their local customs and religious practices were generally allowed to continue, as long as due honour was paid to the emperor.

In the year 250, the Emperor Decius issued a decree that Roman citizens must offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Those who refused were to be put to death.

Many thousands of Christians were slaughtered for refusing. However, there were those who, fearing for their lives, obeyed and offered sacrifices. While all of this was going on, Bishop Cyprian had gone into hiding and led his diocese from a distance.

Once the persecutions had ended the following year, the Church was left with some tough decisions to make: how to deal with the fallen who wanted to return to the Church. The persecutions had been particularly fierce in North Africa, where some of the bishops wanted to show as much mercy as possible and receive them back with little to no penance. Other bishops felt that this would be a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs and confessors who had boldly confessed their faith in Christ, and that reconciliation to the Church must never be allowed to those who had forsaken Christ.

St Cyprian adopted a moderate position, taking into account people’s various circumstances: those who had willingly gone to offer pagan sacrifices, those who had done so only after being tortured, those who had not done so at all but who had been able to bribe the magistrates to issue certificates stating that they had, and baptised infants who had had no say in the matter but who had been taken along by the actions of their parents.

However, even Cyprian’s moderate approach gained him some hefty criticism from those who felt that a bishop who had fled in a cowardly manner had no authority to place penances on those who had stayed and faced the hardships.

St Cyprian was to spend a significant amount of ink over the next few years putting forward a number of arguments defending his actions to go into hiding, not least of which was how irresponsible it would have been of him to leave himself open to being killed, as this would left his flock with no shepherd at the worst possible time.

Martyrdom

Despite all of this, when the second wave of persecutions began under the Emperor Valerian in 256, Cyprian stayed with his people, and was eventually arrested.

As he knew that death was approaching and he awaited his final sentence, the holy bishop wrote a letter to his clergy and faithful:

My obligation and my prayer is that I make my confession both for myself and for you in your presence, and suffer there. I pray that I might depart from there to the Lord accompanied by your continuous prayers and with your supplications… Nevertheless, dearest brothers, continue to make no active resistance, and keep your inner peace in accordance with the spiritual discipline that you have always heard from me on the subject of the Lord’s commandments… God has his place in our hearts, and his wish is that we fulfil our confession of faith in Him rather than fulfil our legal obligations… The Lord will lead me at the time that is now close at hand. May the Lord Jesus cause you to continue to remain unharmed, dearest brothers, in his Church, and may He deign to keep you safe.

Letter LXXXI

On the 14th of September in the year 258, the following sentence was read in court by the Proconsul Galerius:

You have long lived an irreligious life, and drawn together a number of men bound by an unlawful association, and professed yourself an open enemy of the gods and the religion of Rome; and the pious, most sacred, and august emperors, Valerian and Gallienus, and the most noble Caesar Valerian, have endeavoured in vain to bring you back to conformity with their religious observances; whereas then you have been apprehended as principal and ringleader in these infamous crimes, you shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly associated with you: the authority of the law shall be ratified in your blood. It is the will of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be immediately beheaded.’

“The Vita of St Cyprian” by St Pontus of Carthage

Cyprian’s response to all of this was simply, ‘Thanks be to God!’

Then, he was led out to a public place, followed by great crowds. There he removed his own garments and handed them to his deacons, standing in only his plain tunic. He ordered a donation to be made to his executioner, before one of his priests and one of his subdeacons helped to bind his sleeves. Then the holy shepherd of Christ’s flock covered his face with his hands, and surrendered his soul to God as the sword struck.

Thus St Cyprian suffered a martyr’s death and intercedes for us always before the throne of God.

Although St Cyprian’s heavenly birthday is the 14th of September, this date later came to be celebrated as the Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross of the Lord. Therefore, St Cyprian’s feast gladdens our hearts each year on the 16th of September.

Through his prayers, may Christ our God have mercy upon us and save us!

We honour you, O Cyprian, as a true shepherd who, with your sacred words and divinely-wise doctrines, have shown us the boundary-stones marking out the one Church of Christ. Even to death you bore witness with courage; therefore, we extol you as a bishop and martyr. Entreat Christ our God that we all may be saved!

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