September 15, 2017

Saint Cornelius and Saint Cyprian, Martyrs

Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian

September 16th, the Church celebrates two holy friends who received the crown of martyrdom in their imitation of Christ and in service to Christ's Church. Saint Cornelius, (251-253) a Roman was elected Pope in 251 amid the persecutions of the Emperor Decius. Little is known of his life before the papacy. Besides the danger posed by Roman authorities in opposition to the Church, he also had to contend with a deep schism occasioned by Novatian, the first anti-pope.

The issue in contention resulting from the Decian persecution was whether those who had apostatized could be absolve and receive back into the Church. Novatian held that those who had apostacized must be rebaptized, and that some sins were so grave they could not be forgiven by the Church. (Such sins could only be forgiven at the Last Judgment.)

Cornelius had the support of St. Cyprian, St. Dionysius, and most African and Eastern bishops convened a synod of bishops to confirm him as the rightful bishop of Rome and end the schism.  Cornelius was supported by Saint Cyprian whose influence (together with Saint Dionysius) swayed the bishops in Cornelius’ favor. The synod declared Cornelius pope. It further resolved the question on apostates. Pope Cornelius decreed, they must be welcomed back into communion provided they perform an adequate penance.

In 253, the emperor Gallus, exiled Cornelius to Centumcellae,  a Byzantine stronghold, 120 miles from Rome, where he died. He is celebrated as a martyr who displayed heroic virtue in upholding the teaching of the Church. Together with Saint Cyprian, he is mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass.

Saint Cyprian, (210 – 258) bishop of Carthage, is second only to Saint Augustine as a theologian and Father of the African church. He was a close friend of Pope Cornelius, supporting him against Novatian and concerning the admittance of apostates into communion. Cyprian described his conversion and baptism thusly: "When I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, I used to regard it as extremely difficult and demanding to do what God's mercy was suggesting to me... I myself was held in bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, from which I did not believe I could possibly be delivered, so I was disposed to acquiesce in my clinging vices and to indulge my sins... But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of my former life was washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, was infused into my reconciled heart... a second birth restored me to a new man. Then... every doubt began to fade... I clearly understood that what had first lived within me, enslaved by the vices of the flesh, was earthly and that what, instead, the Holy Spirit had wrought within me was divine and heavenly." (Cyprian, Ad Donatum, 3-4.)

Cyprian fled during the Decian persecution but guided the Church through letters. On September 14, 258, he was martyred during the persecutions of the emperor Valerian.  He was beheaded in the presence of his flock. Saint Jerome says of him: "It is superfluous to speak of his greatness, for his works are more luminous than the sun." His works include: On the Unity of the Church; On Apostates; a collection of Letters; The Lord's Prayer; On the Value of Patience. God our Father, in Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian you have given your people an inspiring example of dedication to the pastoral ministry and constant witness to Christ in suffering. May their prayers and faith give us courage to work for the unity of your Church.

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