Unity in a fractured world: Sts Cyprian and Cornelius
Wednesday 16 September 2020
On 16 September we celebrate the feast day of Sts Cornelius and Cyprian. They were friends and allies in a time when the Christian church was small in number, and beset by frequent bouts of violent persecution.
In 248, the Christian community in Carthage, North Africa, elected Cyprian as its bishop. He was a wealthy aristocrat of North African Berber heritage, a skilled speaker, and had become a Christian only two years prior.
One year after Cyprian was elected bishop, two things happened:
Roman Emperor Decius demanded that everyone in the empire sacrifice to Roman gods, with every citizen testifying before a local commission that they were loyal to the gods of Rome. Over the years, the emperor had noticed rising degrees of Christian exclusivism and saw it as a threat to Roman power. The edict would establish religious unity across the empire.
And a plague broke out in Rome. This is still referred to as the Plague of Cyprian, a pandemic that affected the entire Roman Empire until 262. Cyprian witnessed and described the plague. Given the wide variety of symptoms, historians believe it to be something like cholera, smallpox or even Ebola.
Within one year of the outbreak, this plague was claiming 5,000 lives a day.
Cyprian’s biographer, Pontius of Carthage, wrote of the plague at Carthage:
There lay about over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.
Given the frequency of invaders at the empire’s borders, coupled with drought, floods, famine and plague, Cyprian remarked that it appeared as if the world was at an end. This plague would cause political, military, economic and religious upheaval for the next fifty years.
During a plague in Carthage, Cyprian urged Christians to help everyone, including their enemies and Roman persecutors.
Both the threat of imminent death from the plague and the unwavering conviction among Christian leaders like Cyprian, won many converts to Christianity.
But even as the Church grew, the Emperor’s edict still demanded they sacrifice to Roman gods, and the edict didn’t affect all Christians the same way.
Wealthy Christians were able to pay the equivalent of a fine for which they would receive a certificate saying they had complied, without actually practising idolatry themselves. Poorer Christians weren’t so lucky. When they declined to pledge their allegiance to pagan gods, they were tortured, and many relented.
The edict damaged the cohesiveness of the Church. And it raised prickly questions like, did being a Christian mean simply avoiding idolatry, or did it require active confession of Christ when the opportunity was given? And did this affect all Christians equally, regardless of social status?
Cyprian is most famous for dealing with a sticky issue: the question of what to do with Christians who either buckled under torture and swore fealty to the gods of Rome and later tried to re-join the Christian Church, and those who paid a fine, receiving a certificate saying they had sacrificed to the gods and then tried to re-join the Christian church with a clear conscience.
There were several schools of thought on the matter.
Novatian was an influential priest in the diocese of Rome who governed the Church in the absence of a pope, following the death of Pope Fabian, after his imprisonment. Novatian believed that anyone who had buckled under torture and had stopped professing Christianity could no longer be accepted back into the Church, even if they repented. To Novatian, idolatry was an unpardonable sin, and the Church had no authority to forgive unpardonable sins.
Those 'confessors' who had stood firm in their beliefs, regardless of pressure from their local authorities believed that those who had complied with the Roman authorities should be admitted back into the Christian fold immediately. They believed that because they had stood firm in their beliefs, often withstanding torture, that they alone had the authority to make any decisions either way.
Cyprian and his friend Cornelius were not so strict in their pronouncements. They believed that any Christians who had paid a fine or relented under pressure and had made a sacrifice to pagan gods had failed to confess Christ, had lapsed. They therefore needed to repent, demonstrated by a period of penance.
This was the middle ground Cyprian tried to steer the Church into, somewhere between compromise and traditionalism.
He believed penitent lapsed Christians should ultimately be reconciled with the body of believers, although not reinstated to former positions of authority. Engineering a policy for reconciliation was something he wanted to take care of once the mass persecution of Christians was over. The problem was, Cyprian suspected that Christian persecution would only increase in the near future.
The short reigns of Emperors Decius, Gallus and Valerian, were not only times of persecution, but also schism and fractured relations between the faithful, and division between the Church in Rome and the Church in Africa, all while the plague stretched across the empire.
Many Christian bishops began to be targeted when they didn’t swear allegiance to the Roman gods. Cyprian himself fled into exile.
Several years followed the Decian persecution where Christians were largely ignored, only to ignite again under Emperor Valerian (253–260). During the Valerian persecution in 258, Cyprian was again imprisoned on the orders of the new proconsul and governor of the province of Africa, Galerius Maximus.
He was tried and sentenced to death. Details of Cyprian’s trial and sentencing on 14 September have been recorded as follows:
Galerius Maximus: Are you Thascius Cyprianus? Cyprian: I am.
Galerius: The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to the Roman rites.
Cyprian: I refuse.
Galerius: Take heed for yourself.
Cyprian: Do as you are bid; in so clear a case I may not take heed.
Galerius: You have long lived an irreligious life, and have drawn together a number of men bound by an unlawful association, and professed yourself an open enemy to the gods and the religion of Rome; and the pious, most sacred and august Emperors ... have endeavoured in vain to bring you back to conformity with their religious observances; whereas therefore you have been apprehended as principal and ringleader in these infamous crimes, you shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly associated with you; the authority of law shall be ratified in your blood. It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword.
Cyprian: Thanks be to God.
The execution was carried out that day near the city. Cyprian’s congregation followed him from the courthouse on his last journey. Allegedly, the bishop removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself, he was beheaded by the sword.
Cyprian was a mixture of kindness and courage, vigour and steadiness. He was a passionate advocate for the unity of the Church, and this idea was central to his theology. ‘He no longer has God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother’, Cyprian wrote.
Cyprian wrote extensively on the Lord’s Prayer, examining every phrase in great detail. God is always ‘our Father’, never just ‘my Father’, Cyprian wrote in his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer. He concludes his treatise with, ‘Deliver us from evil: Having said that, there is nothing left to ask for. With God's protection we stand safe and secure against all the devices of the devil and the world. Who can fear this life, if God is his life-guardian?’
According to early Church father and Doctor of the Church St Jerome, ‘It is superfluous to speak of [Cyprian’s] greatness, for his works are more luminous than the sun.’ He was a prolific writer with principal works: On the Unity of the Church; On Apostates and On the Value of Patience.
St Cyprian is patron saint of North Africa.
Pope St Cornelius
Rival bishops competed for leadership of the church in Rome following the death of Pope Fabian. Each accused the other of various crimes, and having the incorrect policy towards the major issue of contention at the time, the reconciliation of lapsed Christians.
After 14 months without a pope, the clergy decided to choose a new bishop. It was perfectly timed: the Roman Emperor Decius had left Rome to fight the Goths, so they would be left alone.
The obvious candidate for ecclesiastical leadership was the philosopher-priest Novatian, who had been governing the church during the 14 months without a pope. He had opposed Cyprian in his stance on lapsed Christians being admitted back into the Church.
As a friend and contemporary of Cyprian, he followed Cyprian’s lead and adopted his policy of reconciling penitent lapsed Christians.
In March, 251, Cornelius was unwillingly elected to be the twenty-first pope. Supporters of Novation refused to recognise him as pope, and the Church was more fractured than ever. So it was up to Cornelius to write to the bishops of cities, and put it to them who should be pope.
Cornelius already had the support of Cyprian in Carthage and a majority of bishops.
With this majority, he convened a synod of 60 bishops to acknowledge him as the rightful pope. There, the council excommunicated Novatian as well as all his supporters (referred to as Novatianists).
Like Cyprian, the main controversy Cornelius faced was how to reinstate those people who, under duress, had denied Christ and sworn their fealty to the Roman gods to the Roman authorities. The synod discussed the matter of Christians who stopped practising during Emperor Decius’s persecution. The council ruled they could be re-admitted into the Christian community, but only after doing penance.
Key to Cornelius’ success in reuniting the Church under his guidance was winning the support of Bishop Fabian of Antioch, an ardent supporter of Novatian, whom he had just excommunicated. The council wrote letters.
In these letters to surrounding bishops, Cornelius provided specific information of the Church at the time. And here Cornelius provides us with a unique and valuable snapshot of what the Church in Rome looked like in the early 250s during a time of plague and violent persecution. He paints a picture of a small but effective operation.
Cornelius mentions that the Roman Church had forty-six priests, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty-two ostiarii or doormen, ‘and over one thousand-five-hundred widows and persons in distress’ to whom the church offered daily aid. In short, Cornelius had a staff of over 150 clergy members and the Church fed over 1,500 people every day.
From these numbers, it has been estimated that there were at least 50,000 Christians in Rome during the papacy of Pope Cornelius, in a city with a population estimates ranging from 750,000 to 1 million people.
Cornelius was pope for two years until, under the persecution of Emperor Gallus, Cornelius was sent into exile in Centumcellae, Italy.
We know from his letters in prison that he wrote in colloquial Latin, unlike the classical Latin used by Cyprian, a theologian, or Novatian, a philosopher. This suggests that Cornelius did not come from a wealthy family like Cyprian and was not given a sophisticated education. Despite being pope, he was still a modest man of modest origins.
Contemporary accounts list his death as being from the hardships of banishment; however, later sources claim he was beheaded.
St Cornelius is the patron saint of earache sufferers (perhaps because of his arguments with Novatian), domestic animals, and cattle.