St. Cornelius, Pope and Martyr, and
St. Cyprian Bishop and Martyr
There is a peculiar beauty in the meeting of these two Saints upon the sacred Cycle. Cyprian, in a famous dispute (On the question of the validity of Baptism conferred by heretics), was once opposed to the Apostolic See: Eternal Wisdom now offers him to the homage of the world, in company with one of the most illustrious successors of St. Peter.
Cornelius was, by birth, of the highest nobility; witness his tomb, lately discovered in the family crypt, surrounded by the most honourable names in the patrician ranks. The elevation of a descendant of the Scipios to the sovereign Pontificate linked the past grandeurs of Rome to her future greatness. Decius, who “would more easily have suffered a competitor in his empire than a Bishop in Rome (Cyprian. Epist. x. ad Antonianum, ix.),” had just issued the edict for the seventh general persecution. But the Caesar bestowed upon the world’s capital by a village of Pannonia, could not stay the destinies of the Eternal City. Beside this blood-thirsty emperor, and others like him, whose fathers were known in the city only as slaves or conquered enemies, the true Roman, the descendant of the Cornelii, might be recognized by his native simplicity, by the calmness of his strength of soul, by the intrepid firmness belonging to his race and wherewith he first triumphed over the usurper, who was soon to surrender to the Goths on the borders of the Danube (Cyprian Dips. x. ad Antonianum, viii. ix). And yet, O holy Pontiff, thou art even greater by the humility which Cyprian, thy illustrious friend, admired in thee, and by that purity of thy virginal soul, through which, according to him, thou didst become the elect of God and of His Christ (Ibid. viii).
At thy side, how great is Cyprian himself! What a path of light is traced across the heavens of holy Church by this convert of the priest Caecilius! In the generosity of his soul, when once conquered to Christ, he relinquished honours and riches, his family inheritance, and the glory acquired in the field of eloquence. All marveled to see in him, as his historian says, the harvest gathered before the seed was sown (Pontius Diac. De vita et pass. Cypr. ii). By a justifiable exception, he became a pontiff while yet a neophyte. During the ten years of his episcopate, all men, not only in Carthage and Africa, but in the whole world, had their eyes fixed upon him; the pagans crying: Cyprian to the lions! the Christians only awaiting his word of command in order to obey. Those ten years represent one of the most troubled periods of history. In the empire, anarchy was rife; the frontiers were the scene of repeated invasions; pestilence was raging everywhere: in the Church, a long peace, which had lulled men’s souls to sleep, was followed by the persecutions of Decius, Gallus, and Valerian. The first of these, suddenly bursting like a thunderstorm, caused the fall of many; which evil, in its turn, led to schisms, on account of the too great indulgence of some, and the excessive rigour of others, towards the lapsed.
Who, then, was to teach repentance to the fallen, the truth to the heretics, unity to the schismatics, and to the sons of God prayer and peace? Who was to bring back the virgins to the rules of a holy life? Who was to turn back against the Gentiles their blasphemous sophisms? Under the sword of death, who would speak of future happiness, and bring consolation to souls? Who would teach them mercy, patience, and the secret of changing the venom of envy into the sweetness of salvation? Who would assist the martyrs to rise to the height of their divine vocation? Who would uphold the confessors under torture, in prison, in exile? Who would preserve the survivors of martyrdom from the dangers of their regained liberty.
Cyprian, ever ready, seemed in his incomparable calmness to defy the powers of earth and of hell. Never had flock a surer hand to defend it under a sudden attack, and to put to flight the wild boar of the forest. And how proud the shepherd was of the dignity of that Christian family, which God had entrusted to his guidance and protection! Love for the Church was, so to say, the distinguishing feature of the Bishop of Carthage. In his immortal letters to his most brave and most happy brethren, confessors of Christ, and the honour of the Church, he exclaims: “Oh I truly blessed is our mother the Church, whom the divine condescension has so honoured, who is made illustrious in our days by the glorious blood of the triumphant martyrs; formerly white by the good works of our brethren, she is now adorned with purple from the veins of her heroes; among her flowers, neither roses nor lilies are wanting (Epist. viii. Ad martyres et confessores).”
Unfortunately this very love, this legitimate, though falsely applied, jealousy for the noble Bride of our Saviour, led Cyprian to err on the serious question of the validity of heretical baptism. “The only one,” he said, “alone possesses the keys, the power of the Spouse; we are defending her honour, when we repudiate the polluted water of the heretics (Epist. ad Jubaianum, i. xi).” He was forgetting that, although, through our Lord’s merciful liberality, the most indispensable of the Sacraments does not lose its virtue when administered by a stranger, or even by an enemy of the Church; nevertheless, it derives its fecundity, even then, from and through the Bride; being valid only through union with what she herself does. How true it is, that neither holiness nor learning confers upon man that gift of infallibility, which was promised by our Lord to none but the successor of St. Peter. It was, perhaps, as a demonstration of this truth, that God suffered this passing cloud to darken so lofty an intellect as Cyprian’s. The danger could not be serious, nor the error lasting, in one whose ruling thought is expressed in these words: “He that keeps not the unity of the Church, does he think to keep the faith? He that abandons the See of Peter whereon the Church is founded, can he flatter himself that he is still in the Church?”
Great in his life, Cyprian was still greater in death. Valerian, had given orders for the extermination of the principal clergy; and in Rome, Sixtus II., followed by Laurence, had led the way to martyrdom. Galerius Maximus, proconsul of Africa, was then holding his assizes at Utica, and commanded Thascius Cyprian to be brought before him. But the bishop would not allow the “honour of his Church to be mutilated,” by dying at a distance from his Episcopal city. He therefore waited till the proconsul had returned to Carthage, and then delivered himself up by making a public entrance into the town.
In the house which served for a few hours as his prison, Cyprian, calm and unmoved, gathered his friends and family for the last time round his table. The Christians hastened from all parts to spend the night with their pastor and father. Thus, while he yet lived, they kept the first vigil of his future feast. When, in the morning, he was led before the proconsul, they offered him an arm-chair draped like a bishop’s seat. It was indeed the beginning of an Episcopal function, the pontiff’s own peculiar office being to give his life for the Church, in union with the eternal High-Priest. The interrogatory was short, for there was no hope of shaking his constancy; and the judge pronounced sentence that Thascius Cyprian must die by the sword. On the way to the place of execution, the soldiers formed a guard of honour to the bishop, who advanced calmly, surrounded by his clergy as on days of solemnity. Deep emotion stirred the immense crowd of friends and enemies who had assembled to assist at the sacrifice. The hour had come. The pontiff prayed prostrate upon the ground; then rising, he ordered twenty-five gold pieces to be given to the executioner, and, taking off his tunic, handed it to the deacons. He himself tied the bandage over his eyes; a priest, assisted by a subdeacon, bound his hands; while the people spread linen cloths around him to receive his blood. Not until the bishop himself had given the word of command, did the trembling executioner lower his sword. In the evening, the faithful came with torches and with hymns to bury Cyprian. It was the 14th September, in the year 258.
Let us read first the lines consecrated by the holy Liturgy to the Bishop of Rome.
Cornelius, a Roman by birth, was Sovereign Pontiff during the reign of the Emperors Gallus and Volusianus. In concert with a holy lady named Lucina, he translated the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul from the catacombs to a more honourable resting place. St. Paul’s body was entombed by Lucina on an estate of hers on the Ostian Way, close to the spot where he had been beheaded; while Cornelius laid the body of the Prince of the Apostles near the place of his crucifixion. When this became known to the emperors, and they were moreover informed that, by the advice of the Pontiff, many became Christians, Cornelius was exiled to Centumcellae, where Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote to him to console him.
The frequency of this christian and charitable intercourse between the two Saints gave great displeasure to the emperors; and accordingly, Cornelius was summoned to Rome, where, as if guilty of treason, he was beaten with scourges tipped with lead. He was next dragged before an image of Mars, and commanded to sacrifice to it; but, indignantly refusing to commit such an act of impiety, he was beheaded on the eighteenth of the Calends of October. The blessed Luoina, aided by some clerics, buried his body in a sand pit on her estate, near to the cemetery of Callixtus. His pontificate lasted about two years.
The Church borrows from St. Jerome her eulogy on St. Cyprian.
Cyprian was a native of Africa, and at first taught rhetoric there with great applause. The priest Caecilius, from whom he adopted his surname, having persuaded him to become a Christian, he thereupon distributed all his goods among the poor. Not long afterwards, having been made priest, he was chosen Bishop of Carthage. It would be useless to enlarge upon his genius, since his works outshine the sun. He suffered under the emperors Valerian and Gallienus, in the eighth persecution, on the same day as Cornelius was martyred at Rome, but not in the same year.
Holy Pontiffs, united now in glory as you once were by friendship and in martyrdom preserve within us the fruit of your example and doctrine. Your life teaches us to despise honours and fortune for Christ’s sake, and to give to the Church all our devotedness, of which the world is unworthy. May this be understood by those countless descendants of noble races, who are led astray by a misguided society. May they learn from you gloriously to confound the impious conspiracy that seeks to exterminate them in shameful oblivion and enforced idleness. If their fathers deserved well of mankind, they themselves may now enter upon a higher career of usefulness, where decadence is unknown, and the fruit once produced is everlasting. Remind the lowly as well as the great in the city of God, that peace and war alike have flowers to crown the soldier of Christ: the white wreath of good works is offered to those, who cannot aspire to the rosy diadem of martyrdom.
Watch, O Cyprian, over thy church of Carthage, now at length renewing her youth. And do thou, O Cornelius, restore to Rome her glorious past. Put down the foreigner from her throne; for the mistress of the world must obey no ruler but the Vicar of the King of kings. May her speedy deliverance be the signal to her people for a complete renovation, which cannot now be far distant, unless the end of the world be approaching.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.