There is a peculiar beauty in the meeeting of these two Saints upon the Sacred Liturgical Cycle. St. Cyprian, in a famous dispute, 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.
St. Cornelius was, by birth, of the highest nobility. The elevation of a descendant of the Scipios to the Soveriegn 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," had just issued the edict for the seventh general persecution of Chrisitans. But the Caesar bestowed upon the world's capital by a village of Pannonia, could not stay the destinies of the eternal city. Beside the bloodthirsty 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, wherewith he first triumphed over the usurper, who was soon to surrender to the Goths on the borders of the Danube. And yet, O holy Pontiff, thou art even greater by the humility which St. 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.
At thy side, how great is St 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 relinquised honors and riches, his family inheritance, and the glory acquired in the field of eloquence. All marvelled to see in him, as his historian says, the harvest gathered before the seed was sown. By a justifiable exception, he became a Bishop 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 awaiting but 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, was the occasion of the fall of many; which evil, in its turn, led to schisms, on account of the too great indulgence of some, and the excessive rigor of others, toward 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?
St. Cyprian, ever ready, seemed in his incomparable calmness to defy the powers of earth and of Hell. Never had a 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 honor of the Church, he exclaims: "Oh truly blessed is our Mother the Church, whom the divine condescension has so honored, 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."
Unfortunately this very love, this legitimate, though falsely applied, jealousy for the noble Bride of our Savior, led St. 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 honor, when we repudiate the polluted water of the heretics." He was forgetting that although, through Our Lord's merciful goodness, the most indispensable of the Sacraments does not lose its virtue when administered properly 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 true Successors of St. Peter. It was, perhaps, as a demonstration of this truth, that God permitted this passing cloud to darken so lofty an intellect as St. Cyprian's. The danger could not be serious, or the error lasting, in one whose ruling thought is expressed by 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 Cburch?"
Great in his life, St. Cyprian was still greater in death. Valerian had given orders for the extermination of the principal clergy; and in Rome, Pope St. Sixtus II, followed by his Deacon, St. Laurence, had led the way to martyrdom. Galerius Maximus, proconsul of Africa, was then holding court at Utica, and commanded St. Cyprian to be brought to him. But the Bishop would not allow "the honor of his Church to be mutilated," by dying at a distance from his episcopal see. He therefore waited till the proconsul had returned to Carthage, and then delivered himself up by making a public entrance into the city.
In the house which served for a few hours as his prison, St. 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 armchair draped like a bishop's throne. 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 St. Cyprian must die by the sword. On the way to the place of execution, the soldiers formed a guard of honor 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 25 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 St. Cyprian. It was September 14 in the year 258.
The Feast of these glorious Martyrs has been translated to September 16. Let us read first the lines consecrated by the holy liturgy to St. Cornelius, the Bishop of Rome:
St. Cornelius, a Roman by birth, was Sovereign Pontiff during the reign of the emperors Gallus and Volusianus. Together with a holy lady named Lucina, he translated the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul from the catacombs to a more honorable 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 St. 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 Pope, many became Christians, St. Cornelius was exiled to Centumcellae, where St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote to him to console him.
The frequency of this Christian and charitable communication between the two Saints gave great displeasure to the emperors; and accordingly, St. 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; but indignantly refusing to commit such an act of infidelity, he was beheaded on the 14th of September. The blessed Lucina, aided by some clerics, buried his body in a sandpit on her estate, near to the cemetery of Callixtus. His Pontificate lasted about two years.
The Breviary lessons omit much of the details of St. Cornelius' reign. Perhaps his greatest achievement as Pope was his steadfast resistance of the schism brought about by the anti-pope Novatian. This proud rigorist taught that Christians who had apostatized during the persecutions could not be absolved. Disappointed that he himself was not elected Pope, he declared the election of St. Cornelius illegitimate, and set himself up as anti-pope. Due to the zeal and diligence of Pope St. Cornelius, together with his friend St. Cyprian, the heresy and schism were not widespread, though they continued in places for several hundred years. Letters written during the schism provide historians with clear proofs of the recognition of Papal Primacy. Both the true Pope, St. Cornelius, and the anti-pope, Novatian, claimed the right to remove rebellious bishops from their sees and appoint replacements.
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. Having been persuaded to become a Christian by the priest Caecilius, from whom he adopted his surname, he thereupon distributed all his goods among the poor. Not long afterwards, having been made a priest, he was chosen Bishop of Carthage. It would be superfluous 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 St. 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 lives teach us to despise honors 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 the countless descendants of noble races, who are led astray by a misguided society. Remind the lowly as well as the great 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 (from St. Cyprian's 8th Letter to Martyrs and Confessors.)
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