St Peter’s Square
Wednesday, 6 June 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the series of our catecheses on the great figures of the ancient Church, today we come to an excellent African Bishop of the third century, St Cyprian, “the first Bishop in Africa to obtain the crown of martyrdom”.
His fame, Pontius the Deacon his first biographer attests, is also linked to his literary corpus and pastoral activity during the 13 years between his conversion and his martyrdom (cf. Life and Passion of St Cyprian, 19, 1; 1, 1).
Cyprian was born in Carthage into a rich pagan family. After a dissipated youth, he converted to Christianity at the age of 35.
He himself often told of his spiritual journey, “When I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night”, he wrote a few months after his Baptism, “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, in a wondrous manner 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” (Ad Donatum, 3-4).
Immediately after his conversion, despite envy and resistance, Cyprian was chosen for the priestly office and raised to the dignity of Bishop. In the brief period of his episcopacy he had to face the first two persecutions sanctioned by imperial decree: that of Decius (250) and that of Valerian (257-258).
After the particularly harsh persecution of Decius, the Bishop had to work strenuously to restore order to the Christian community. Indeed, many of the faithful had abjured or at any rate had not behaved correctly when put to the test. They were the so-called lapsi – that is, the “fallen” – who ardently desired to be readmitted to the community.
(To continue reading, please see here).