Saint Cyprian (Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus) (d. September 14, 258) was bishop of Carthage and an important early Christian writer. He was born around the beginning of the 3rd century in North Africa, perhaps at Carthage, where he received an excellent classical education. After converting to Christianity, he became a bishop (249) and eventually died a martyr at Carthage.
His original name was Thascius; he took the additional name Caecilius in memory of the presbyter to whom he owed his conversion. In the early days of his conversion he wrote an "Epistola ad Donatum de gratia Dei," and three books of "Testimoniorum adversus Judæos" that adhere closely to the models of Tertullian, who influenced his style and thinking, and are largely interesting as a document in the history of anti-semitism.
Not long after his baptism he was ordained deacon, and soon afterward presbyter; and some time between July 248 and April 249 he was chosen bishop of Carthage, a popular choice among the poor who remembered his patronage as demonstrating good equestrian style, while a portion of the presbytery opposed it, for all Cyprian's wealth and learning and diplomacy and literary talents. Moreover, the opposition within the church community at Carthage did not dissolve during his episcopacy.
Soon, however, the entire community was put to an unwonted test. Christians in North Africa had not suffered persecution for many years: the church was assured and lax. Early in 250 the "Decian persecution" began. Measures were first taken demanding that the bishops and officers of the church sacrifice to the emperor. The proconsul on circuit, and five commissioners for each town, administered the edict; but, when the proconsul reached Carthage, Cyprian had fled.
It is quite evident in the writings of the church fathers from various dioceses that the Christian community was divided on this occasion, among those who stood firm in civil disobedience, and those who buckled, submitting in word or in deed to the order of sacrifice and receiving a ticket or receipt called a "libellus." Cyprian's secret departure from Carthage was interpreted by his enemies as cowardice and infidelity, and they hastened to accuse him at Rome. The Roman clergy wrote to Cyprian in terms of disapproval. Cyprian rejoined that he fled in accordance with visions and the divine command. From his place of refuge he ruled his flock with earnestness and zeal, using a faithful deacon as his intermediary.
Though he had remained in seclusion himself, Cyprian now censured all laxity toward the lapsed, refused absolution to them except in case of mortal sickness, and desired to postpone the question of their re-admission to the Church to more quiet times. A schism broke out in Carthage. Felicissimus, who had been ordained deacon by the presbyter Novatus during the absence of Cyprian, opposed all steps taken by Cyprian's representatives. Cyprian deposed and excommunicated him and his supporter Augendius. Felicissimus was upheld by Novatus and four other presbyters, and a determined opposition was thus organized.
When, after an absence of fourteen months, Cyprian returned to his diocese, he defended leaving his post in letters to the other North African bishops and a tract "De lapsis," and called a council of North African bishops at Carthage to consider the treatment of the lapsed and the apparent schism of Felicissimus (251). The council in the main sided with Cyprian and condemned Felicissimus, though no acts of this council survive. The "libellatici" were to be restored at once upon sincere repentance; but such as had taken part in heathen sacrifices could be received back into the Church only when on the point of death. Afterward this regulation was essentially mitigated, and even these were restored if they repented immediately after a sudden fall and eagerly sought absolution; though clerics who had fallen were to be deposed and could not be restored to their functions.
In Carthage the followers of Felicissimus elected Fortunatus as bishop in opposition to Cyprian, while in Rome the followers of the Roman presbyter Novatian, who also refused absolution to all the lapsed, elected their man as bishop of Rome, in opposition to Cornelius. The Novationists secured the election of a rival bishop of their own at Carthage, Maximus by name. Novatus now left Felicissimus and followed the Novatian party.
But these extremes strengthened the firm but moderating influence exhibited in Cyprian's writings, and the following of his opponents grew less and less. He rose still higher in the favor of the people when they witnessed his self-denying devotion during the time of a great plague and famine.
He comforted his brethren by writing his "De mortalitate," and in his "De eleomosynis" exhorted them to active charity towards the poor, while he set the best pattern by his own life. He defended Christianity and the Christians in the apologia "Ad Demetrianum," directed against a certain Demetrius and the reproach of the heathens that Christians were the cause of the public calamities.
Stephen declared baptism by heretics valid if administered according to the institution either in the name of Christ or of the holy Trinity. This was the mainstream view of the Church. Cyprian, on the other hand, believing that outside the Church there was no true baptism, regarded that of heretics as null and void, and baptized as for the first time those who joined the Church. When heretics had been baptized in the Church, but had temporarily fallen away and wished to return in penitence, he did not rebaptize them.
Cyprian's narrow definition of the Church led him to certain inferences that made him in this respect the connecting-link between his model, the rigorist Tertullian, and the comparable Donatist controversy that split North Africa later, concerning the efficacy of the mass, when said by an unworthy priest.
The majority of the North African bishops sided with Cyprian; and in the East he had a powerful ally in Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea. But the position of Stephen came to find general acceptance. Stephen in his letters used the claim of superiority of the Roman See over all bishoprics of the Church. To this claim Cyprian answered that the authority of the Roman bishop was coordinate with, not superior to, his own. Stephen broke off communion with Cyprian and Carthage, though perhaps without going as far as a formal excommunication of Cyprian.
The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia article on Cyprian claims that at the time the issue was seen only as a matter of discipline and not of doctrine. The modern Catholic Church holds dogmatically that baptism by heretics and even by atheists or other non-Christians is valid if done according to the manner that the Church prescribes, in other words by using the Trinitarian formula "I baptise you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," while having the intention to baptise, even if the person doing the baptising is not himself baptised. The doctrinal basis for this was articulated by St. Augustine in his conflict with the Donatists, who claimed the authority of Cyprian for their own position.
In Africa Cyprian courageously prepared his people for the expected edict of persecution by his "De exhortatione martyrii," and himself set an example when he was brought before the Roman proconsul Aspasius Paternus (August 30, 257). He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Christ.
The consul banished him to the desolate Churubis, whence he comforted to the best of his ability his flock and his banished clergy. In a vision he saw his approaching fate. When a year had passed he was recalled and kept practically a prisoner on his own villa, in expectation of severer measures after a new and more stringent imperial edict arrived which demanded the execution of all Christian clerics, according to reports of it by Christian writers.
On September 13, 258, he was imprisoned at the behest of the new proconsul, Galerius Maximus. The day following he was examined for the last time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was "thanks be to God!" The execution was carried out at once in an open place near the city. A vast multitude followed Cyprian on his last journey. He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself, he was beheaded by the sword.
The body was interred by Christian hands near the place of execution, and over it, as well as on the actual scene of his death, churches were afterward erected, which, however, were destroyed by the Vandals. Charlemagne is said to have had the bones transferred to France; and Lyons, Arles, Venice, Compiegne, and Roenay in Flanders boast the possession of the martyr's relics.
His most important work is his "De unitate ecclesiae." In it, it states: "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother; . . . he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ" (vi.); "nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church" (ix.).
The following works are of doubtful authenticity: "De spectaculis" ("On public games"); "De bono pudicitiae" ("The virtue of modesty"); "De idolorum vanitate" ("On the vanity of images", which may perhaps be by Novatian); "De laude martyrii" ("In praise of martyrs"); "Adversua aleatores" ; "De montibus Sina et Sion"; and the "Cena Cypriani" ("Cyprian's Banquet", which enjoyed wide circulation in the Middle Ages). The treatise entitled "De duplici martyrio ad Fortunatum" was not only published for the first and only time by Erasmus, but was probably also composed by him and fathered upon Cyprian.
Posterity has had less difficulty in reaching a universally accepted view of Cyprian's personality than his contemporaries. He combined loftiness of thought with an ever-present consciousness of the dignity of his office; his earnest life, his self-denial and fidelity, moderation and greatness of soul have been increasingly acknowledged and admired. He was the type of a prince of the Church. The glory of his courageous and edifying martyrdom can not be extinguished by the earlier charges of cowardice. As a writer, however, he was in general by no means original or especially deep.
St Cyprian's first writing starts out as a speech he made to his friends. It is called, Ad Donatum. It speaks out against the Roman Government and gladiator shows. He says that the only refuge from these evils is the prayerful life of a Christian. His style of writing is said to be unequaled among the Fathers of the Church.