To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
St. Cyprian of Carthage
A Model of Devotion to Prayer, The Word of God And the Church
BY John Lilly
Pope Benedict XVI met with 40,000
pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on June 6. He spoke
about St. Cyprian of Carthage in his catechesis. The Holy Father highlighted
Cyprian’s emphasis on the unity of the Church as founded on Peter, his devotion
to prayer and to God’s word in Scripture, and his love for the Church that
found supreme expression is his death as a martyr during Emperor Valerian’s
brothers and sisters,
In our series of catecheses on some
of the prominent figures of the early Church, we have come today to an
outstanding African bishop from the third century, St. Cyprian, who “was the
first bishop in Africa to attain the crown of martyrdom.” His fame, as his
first biographer the deacon Pontius testifies, is equally due to his literary
works and his pastoral activity during the 13 years between his conversion and
his martyrdom (see Vita 19:1; 1:1).
St. Cyprian was born in Carthage to
a rich pagan family. After a dissolute youth, he converted to Christianity at
the age of 35. He himself has recounted for us his spiritual journey: “When I
was still in the dark night,” he wrote a few months after his baptism, “it
seemed extremely difficult and exhausting to fulfill what the mercy of God was
bidding me to do. … I was bound up by the many mistakes of my past life and I
didn’t think I could free myself from them, given that I would follow my vices
and favor my sinful desires so much. … Later, with the help of the regenerative
waters, the misery of my previous life was washed away, a sovereign light
illumined my heart and a second birth restored me to a completely new life. In
a marvelous way, all doubt began to dissipate. … I understood clearly that what
used to live in me was worldly, in slavery to the vices of the flesh and that,
on the contrary, what the Holy Spirit had already generated in me was divine
and heavenly” (To Donatus, 3-4).
A Shepherd’s Heart
Soon after his conversion, Cyprian,
despite envy and resistance, was chosen for the priestly office and elevated to
the dignity of a bishop. In the brief period of his episcopacy, he faced the
first two persecutions mandated by an imperial decree: Decius’ persecution in
250 and Valerian’s in 257-258.
After Decius’ particularly cruel
persecution, Cyprian had to work hard to restore order in the Christian
community. Many of the faithful had forsaken the faith or had at least failed
to respond fittingly when put to the test. These so-called lapsi (the
lapsed) fervently desired to rejoin the community. The debate regarding their
readmission eventually divided the Christians of Carthage into those who took a
lenient attitude and those who took a more rigorous attitude.
In addition to these difficulties, a
serious plague scourged Africa and posed grave theological questions both
within the community and in their relationship with the pagans. Finally, a
controversy arose between St. Cyprian and Stephen, the Bishop of Rome,
regarding the validity of baptism when administered to pagans by heretical
Amid these truly difficult
circumstances, Cyprian demonstrated some God-given gifts for governing. He was
strict yet flexible with the lapsi, granting them the
possibility of a pardon after an exemplary penance.
In regard to Rome, he was firm in
defending the sound traditions of the Church in Africa. He was extremely humane
and imbued with a truly authentic Gospel spirit as he exhorted Christians to
offer brotherly assistance to pagans during the plague. He managed to maintain
the proper balance as he reminded the faithful — who were too afraid of losing
their lives and their material possessions — that their true life and
possessions were not of this world. He was unyielding in fighting the corrupt
morals and sins that were destroying moral life, especially greed.
“He was spending his days on such
matters,” Deacon Pontius tells us, “when by the command of the proconsul, the
chief of police arrived unexpectedly at his house” (Vita
15:1). This holy bishop was arrested on that day and, after a brief
interrogation, courageously faced martyrdom as his people looked on.
The Unity of the Church
Cyprian composed numerous treatises
and letters, all of them associated with his pastoral ministry. Seldom given to
theological speculation, he wrote mostly to build up the community and
encourage good behavior among the faithful. In fact, the Church was by far his
He distinguished between the “visible
Church,” which is hierarchical, and the “invisible Church,” which is mystical,
yet he strongly affirmed that the Church is one, founded on Peter. He never
grew tired of repeating that “whoever abandons the Chair of Peter, upon which
the Church is founded, is fooling himself that he still belongs to the Church”
della Chiesa cattolica, 4).
Cyprian was well aware, and
expressed it in strong words, that “outside the Church there is no salvation” (Epistola
4:4 and 73:21) and that “No one can have God as their Father who does not have
the Church as their mother” (L’unità della Chiesa cattolica,
Unity is an irrevocable
characteristic of the Church that is symbolized by Christ’s seamless garment (L’unità
della Chiesa cattolica, 7) — a unity, he says, that finds its
foundation in Peter (L’unità della Chiesa cattolica,
4) and its perfect fulfillment in the Eucharist (Epistola
“There is only one God, one Christ,”
Cyprian warns, “one Church, one faith, and one Christian people firmly united
by the cement of harmony; one cannot separate what by nature is one” (L’unità
della Chiesa cattolica, 23).
A Man of Prayer
We have spoken about Cyprian’s
thoughts on the Church, but let us not forget, lastly, his teachings on prayer.
I particularly like his book on the
“Our Father,” which has helped me a lot to understand and pray better the
“Lord’s Prayer.” Cyprian teaches us that it is precisely in the “Our Father”
that Christians are given the proper way of praying and he emphasizes that this
prayer is in the plural “so that whoever prays it, may not pray for himself
“Our prayer,” he writes, “is public
and communal. When we pray, we pray not only for ourselves but for the whole
people because with the people we are one single thing” (L’orazione del
Thus, personal prayer and liturgical
prayer are solidly linked to each other.
Their unity is based on the fact
that they both respond to the same Word of God. The Christian does not say “My
Father” but “Our Father,” even in the secret of his own room because he knows
that in all places and in all circumstances he is a member of the one same
“Let us pray, then, my most beloved
brothers,” Bishop Cyprian of Carthage wrote, “as God, the teacher, taught us.
To pray to God with what is his — elevating Christ’s prayer to his ears — is an
intimate and confident prayer. May the Father recognize the words of his Son
when we lift a prayer to him so that he who dwells interiorly in the spirit
would also be present in our voice. … Moreover, when we pray, we ought to have
a way of speaking and praying that, with discipline, remains calm and reserved.
“Let us remember that we are under
We have to be pleasing to God’s eyes
both in our bodily attitude and our tone of voice. … And when we gather with
the brethren and celebrate the divine sacrifice with God’s priest, we must do
it with reverent fear and discipline, without throwing our prayers to the wind
in a loud voice, nor elevating in a long speech a petition to God that ought to
be presented with moderation, for God does not listen to the voice but to the
vocis sed cordis auditor est)” (3-4).
These words are as valid today as
they were then, and they help us to celebrate the sacred liturgy properly.
Man’s Encounter with God
Cyprian was clearly at the origins
of that fertile theological and spiritual tradition that sees the “heart” as
the special place of prayer.
According to the Bible and the
Fathers of the Church, the heart is man’s innermost core, the place where God
dwells. It is here that the encounter in which God speaks to man and man
listens to God takes place and where man speaks to God and God listens to man.
All this takes place through the only Word of God.
It is precisely in this sense that
Smaragdus, the abbot of St. Michael on the Meuse at the beginning of the ninth
century, echoes the word of Cyprian and asserts that prayer “is the work of the
heart, not of the lips, because God does not look at words but at the heart of
the one who prays.” (Il diadema dei monaci, 1).
My beloved, let us make this
“listening heart” of which the Bible and the Fathers speak be our own heart
(see 1 Kings 3:9). We need it so much! It is the only way we will be able to
experience fully that God is our Father and that the Church, the holy Bride of
Christ, is truly our Mother.