Weekly Catechesis 06.17.2007
St. Cyprian of Carthage
A Model of Devotion to Prayer, The Word of God And the Church
BY John Lilly
June 17-23, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/12/07 at 10:00 AM
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 persecution.
Dear 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 Christians.
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 favorite subject.
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” (L’unità 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, 4).
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 63:13).
“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 alone.”
“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 Signore, 8).
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 body.
“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 God’s gaze.
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 heart (non 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.
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