St. Cyprian influenced the growth of the early Church, especially in Africa, where he was seen as the most important leader of the faithful in his time. For ages, he has been named in one of the forms of the Eucharistic prayer at Mass.
He was born in the year 200 in Carthage, and was raised without any particular religion. As an adult, he was active in the social and public life of Carthage as a teacher and lawyer. He came to know an older priest, Caecilian, who inspired him to explore the Christian life. Cyprian saw Caecilian as a father-figure and guardian angel. The priest returned the affection, and when he died, he entrusted the care of his family to Cyprian.
Under Caecilian’s care, Cyprian was baptized, reformed his life and took on a vow of chastity. His conversion to Christianity was so complete that he took on the study of Scripture and the saints who explained it.
He was soon ordained as a priest, and later was named bishop of Carthage. At first, he resisted the responsibility and tried to flee the town, but eventually relented and accepted the role. An early biographer described him as a charitable and courageous bishop who inspired respect and love.
A year after taking on his role as bishop, the Roman empire instituted a policy of persecuting Christians. A mob mentality ensued, and crowds called for Cyprian to be thrown to the lions. He fled and hid so as to continue to encourage the faithful in his care with letters. He wrote those who were imprisoned for their faith and organized priests to visit them to bring them holy Communion.
One of his great contributions was to enforce the unity of the Church. When he was in hiding, a priest who opposed him claimed the seat of bishop. Cyprian forcefully resisted this, calling a council of fellow bishops to excommunicate the usurper and explaining that the legitimate succession of bishops from Peter is the sure protection for the unity of the Church.
The Church struggled to decide how to treat Christians who had renounced the faith during the persecution but wanted to return to the Church when others had suffered imprisonment or death. Cyprian was active in this debate, urging a strict policy, but enforcing it with mercy.
A plague struck Carthage for several years between 252 and 254, and Cyprian did much to care for those who were suffering. He encouraged his flock to help the sick, whether they were Christian or not, and he especially urged the wealthy to offer their material resources. “Do not let something rest in your wallet that might be helpful for the poor,” he said.
The persecution of Christians intensified—laws prohibited the faithful from gathering and commanded bishops and priests to offer sacrifice to the imperial gods. Cyprian was arrested and sent into exile when he refused to renounce the faith. He was further condemned to death by beheading so as to be an example to others, and when his sentence was read, he replied, “Thanks be to God.”
Relics of St. Cyprian rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica, and this sketch of the saint is part of the collection of the Snite Museum of Art. It is an early study prepared by the artist, Luigi Gregori, who painted the murals in the Basilica, though Cyprian was not included in the final group of saints who are depicted there.
St. Cyprian, the bishop who protected the unity of the early Church in Africa and who was killed for his faithfulness, pray for us!
Top image: Luigi Gregori (Italian, 1819-1896), Saint Cyprian, 1886, ink on paper. Snite Museum of Art: Gift of Luigi Gregori, AA2009.056.330.