Commemorated on August 31
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, was born in about the year 200 in the city of
Carthage (Northern Africa), where all his life and work took place. Thasius
Cyprianus was the son of a rich pagan senator, and received a fine secular
education becoming a splendid orator, teacher of rhetoric and philosophy in the
school of Carthage. He often appeared in the courts to plea and defend the
deeds of his townsmen. Cyprian afterwards recollected, that for a long while
"he remained in a deep dark myst..., far from the light of Truth".
His fortune – received from his parents and from his vocational activity, he
expended on sumptuous banquets, but they were not able to quench in him the
thirst for truth. Having become curious about Christianity, he became
acquainted with the writings of the Apologist presbyter Tertullian (born about
the year 160). The sainted-bishop later wrote, that it then seemed impossible
for him because of his habits to attain to the regeneration promised by the
From such a burdened
and undecided state of mind he was helped out by his friend and guide – the
presbyter Cecilius. At 46 years of age the studious pagan was received into the
Christian community as a catechumen. And before accepting Baptism, he
distributed his property to the poor and moved into the house of the presbyter
Cecilius. Strengthened by the power of the regenerative grace of God –
received by him in Baptism, Sainted Cyprian wrote in a letter to his friend
Donatus: "When the surge of regeneration cleansed the impurity of my former
life, a light – steady and bright, shone down from Heaven into my heart. When
the second birth by the Heavenly Spirit transformed me into a new man, then in
a miraculous manner I was strengthened against doubt, mysteries were revealed,
and darkness was made light... and I learned, that my having lived in the flesh
for sin belonged to the earthly, but now was begun a Divine living by the Holy
Spirit. In God and from God is all our strength; from Him is our might. Through
Him we, living upon the earth, have the hint of a condition of future
bliss". Exemplarily a year after his Baptism the saint was ordained to the
priesthood, and when bishop Donatus of Carthage died, all unanimously chose
Saint Cyprian as bishop. He gave his consent, having complied with his guide's
request, and was ordained bishop of Carthage in about the year 248.
The saint first of
all concerned himself about the welfare of the Church and the eradication of
vices amidst the clergy and flock. The saintly life of the archpastor evoked in
everyone a desire to imitate his piety, humility and wisdom. The fruitful
activity of Saint Cyprian became reknown beyond the bounds of his diocese.
Bishops from other sees often turned to him for advice, as how to deal with
this or that other matter. A persecution by the emperor Decius (249-251) –
revealed to the saint in a dream vision, forced him to go into hiding. His life
was necessary to his flock for the strengthening of faith and courage among the
persecuted. Before his departure from his diocese, the saint distributed the
church treasury among all the clergy for the rendering of help to the needy,
and in addition he dispatched further funds.
He kept in constant
touch with the Carthaginian Christians through his epistles, and he wrote
letters to presbyters, confessors and martyrs. Some Christians, broken by
torture, offered sacrifice to the pagan gods. These lapsed Christians appealed
to the confessors, asking to give them what is called a letter of
reconciliation, i.e. an interceding certificate about accepting them back into
the Church. Sainted Cyprian wrote to all the Carthaginian Christians a general
missive, in which he indicated that those lapsed during a time of persecution
might be admitted into the Church, but this needed to be preceded by an
investigation of the circumstances under which the falling-away came about. An
examination was necessary of the sincerity of contrition of the lapsed. To
admit them was possible only after a Church penance and with the permission of
the bishop. Some of the lapsed insistently demanded their immediate
re-admittance into the Church and by this caused unrest in the whole community.
Saint Cyprian wrote the bishops of other dioceses asking their opinion, and
from all he received full approval of his directives.
During the time of
his absence the saint authorised four clergy to examine the lives of persons
preparing for ordination to the priesthood and the deaconate. This met
resistance from the layman Felicissimus and the presbyter Novatus, roused to
indignation against their bishop. Saint Cyprian excommunicated Felicissimus and
six of his accomplices. In his letter to the flock, the saint touchingly
admonished all not to separate themselves from the unity of the Church, to be
subject to the lawful commands of the bishop and to await his return. This
letter held the majority of Carthaginian Christians in fidelity to the Church.
In a short while
Saint Cyprian returned to his flock. The insubordination of Felicissimus was
put to an end at a Local Council in the year 251. This Council rendered a
judgement about the possibility of receiving the lapsed back into the Church
after a church penance and it affirmed the excommunication of Felicissimus.
During this time
there occurred a new schism, put forward by the Roman presbyter Novatian, and
joined by the Carthaginian presbyter Novatus – a former adherent of
Felicissimus. Novatian asserted that the lapsed during time of persecution
could not be admitted back, even if they repented of their sin. Besides this,
Novatian with the help of Novatus convinced three Italian bishops during the
lifetime of the lawful Roman bishop Celerinus to place another bishop on the
Roman cathedra. Against such iniquity, Saint Cyprian wrote a series of circular
missives to the African bishops, and afterwards a whole book, "On the
Unity of the Church".
When the discord in
the Carthage church began to quiet down, a new calamity began – a pestilential
plague flared up. Hundreds of people fled from the city – leaving the sick
without help, and the dead without burial. Saint Cyprian, providing an example
by his firmness and his courage, himself tended the sick and buried the dead,
not only Christians but pagans also. The pestilential plague was accompanied by
drought and famine. An horde of barbarian Numidians, taking advantage of the
misfortune, fell upon the inhabitants taking many into captivity. Saint Cyprian
moved many rich Carthaginians to offer up means for feeding the starving and
When a new
persecution against Christians spread under the emperor Valerian (253-259), the
Carthaginian proconsul Paternus ordered the saint to offer sacrifice to idols.
He steadfastly refused both to do this and to name names and abodes of the
presbyters of the Carthage Church. The sent off the saint to the locale of
Corubisum. Deacon Pontus voluntarily followed his bishop into exile. On the day
when the saint arrived at the place of exile he had a dream vision, predicting
for him a quick martyr's end. Situated in exile, Saint Cyprian wrote many
letters and books. Wanting to suffer at Carthage, he himself returned there.
Taken before the court, he was set at liberty until the following year. Nearly
all the Christians of Carthage came to take their leave of their bishop and
receive his blessing. At the trial Saint Cyprian calmly and firmly refused to
offer sacrifice to idols and was sentenced to beheading with a sword. Hearing
the sentence, Saint Cyprian said: "Thanks be to God!" and all the
people with one voice cried out: "And we want to die with him!"
Coming to the place of execution, the saint again gave his blessing to all and
arranged to give 25 gold coins to the executioner. He himself then covered over
his eyes, and gave his hands to be bound to the presbyter and archdeacon standing
near him and lowered his head. Christians with lamentation put their shawls and
veils by him so as to gather up the priestly blood. The martyr's death occurred
in the year 258. The body of the saint was taken by night and given burial in a
private crypt of the procurator Macrovius Candidianus.
the time of king Charles the Great (i.e. Charlemagne, 771-814), his holy relics
were transferred to France.
Sainted Cyprian of
Carthage left the Church a precious legacy: his writings and 80 letters. The
works of Saint Cyprian were accepted by the Church as a model of Orthodox
confession and read at OEcumenical Councils (III Ephesus and IV Chalcedon). In
the writings of Saint Cyprian is stated the Orthodox teaching about the Church
– having its foundation upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and proclaimed and built
by the Apostles. The inner unity is expressed in an unity of faith and love,
and the outer unity is actualised by the hierarchy and sacraments of the
Church. In the Church Christ comprises all the fulness of life and salvation.
Those having separated themselves from the unity of the Church do not have in
themself true life. Christian love is shewn as the bond holding together the
Church. "Love, – is the foundation of all the virtues, and it continues
with us eternally in the Heavenly Kingdom".
© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.