Thasius Cecilianus Cyprianus was an aristocratic and cultivated orator and teacher of rhetoric in Carthage who was born about the year 200. He was converted to the Christian faith about the year 246, and his conversion was thoroughgoing. He gave up all pagan writings and concentrated his studies thenceforth on the Scriptures and Christian commentaries, including those of Tertullian, a compatriot whom he regarded as his master. Shortly after his conversion he became a presbyter, and in 248 he was chosen bishop of Carthage by the people and clergy of Carthage with the consent of the neighboring bishops. A year later the persecution under the emperor Decius began, forcing Cyprian to flee to safety. He kept in touch with his Church by letters and through this means directed them with wisdom and compassion. During the persecution a number of Christians had apostatized by sacrificing to idols or had lapsed by buying certificates which stated falsely that they had sacrificed. Cyprian reconciled these lapsi after a suitable time of penance. One of his presbyters, Novatus, readmitted them without any penance at all, while the rigorist bishop of Rome, Novatian, taught that the Church could not absolve an apostate at all, leading a group into schism at Rome and Antioch over this vexing question. In time this group came to be called the Novatians, and they would continue as a schismatic church for some time to come. Throughout the controvery, Cyprian insisted on discreet compassion, the unity of the Churh, and the need for obedience and loyalty.
From this controversy there arose another concerning the validity of baptism administred by schimatics, heretics, and apostates. Cyprian’s view conflicted with that of Pope Stephen the Second, bishop of Rome, but Cyprian was supported by other African bishops in rejecting the validity of these baptisms. The controversy became acrimonious and was settled only after the deaths of the two protagonists by the Church’s acceptance of the Roman tradition in favor of their validity. Augustine of Hippo tells us that Cyprian atoned for his passion in the controversy by his glorious martyrdom. Under the persecution of the emperor Valerian, which specifically required bishops, presbyters, and deacons to sacrifice to idols, Cyprian was exiled in 257 and condemned to death and beheaded on the fourteenth of September, 258.
Many of Cyprian’s writings have been preserved. In his treatise, On the Lord’s Prayer, he writes: “We say ‘Hallowed be thy Name’ not that we want God to be made holy by our prayers but because we seek from the Lord that his Name may be made holy in us…so that we who have been made holy in Baptism may persevere in what we have begun to be.”
His book, On the Unity of the Catholic Church strongly affirms the unity of the episcopate and the sinfulness of schism: “The episcopate is a single whole,” he writes, “in which each bishop’s share gives him a right to, and a responsibility for, the whole. So is the Church a single whole, though she spreads far and wide into a multitude of churches…If you leave the Church of Christ you will not come to Christ’s rewards, you will be an alien, an outcast, an enemy. You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the Church for your Mother.”
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
and The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Almighty God, who gave to your servant Cyprian boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and Martyr, are published on the Lectionary Page website.