Spetember 16th is the feast of St. Cyprian and, since he is an important witness to the truth of the Catholic faith from antiquity, I want to present a few of his teachings below. Perhaps first just a short account of his life.
He was born to a rich, noble family about the year 210 A.D. His full name was Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus. Raised in a pagan family he would not convert to the faith until his mid thirties. He attended the finest schools and became a master of Rhetoric. He then took up a career in law. He, like many of his elevated social class, enjoyed a comfortable life without career worries and filled with the luxuries and pleasures of that his high social rank afforded.
We do not know that the exact time or manner of his conversion but it is clear from his writings that he became increasingly besieged by a feeling of emptiness and a hidden desperation. His own riches seemed burdensome and whatever pleasures they offered were empty. More and more he was disillusioned with the immorality of his age. He wrote sadly not only of the sexual immorality of his day but also of the horrible violence displayed in the arena and on the stage where the death of gladiators was entertainment for the crowds. He lamented the injustice and bribery in the courts where “justice” often went to the highest bidder. And then there was the neglect of the poor.
Cyprian had been introduced to the teachings of the Christian faith by Cecilanus, an elder in the Christian community of Carthage. He took instructions and was baptized on April 18, 246 at the Easter vigil. He was now thirty-six years old and newly baptized. On year later he was ordained a priest.
In 248 A.D. Donatus, the Bishop of Carthage died. It was the practice of the early Church in many parts of the ancient world to permit the members of the local Church to present a man for the office of Bishop. And so it was that after the burial of Donatus, a groundswell began that would lift Cyprian to the office of Bishop.
He proved a good administrator and was a prolific writer of many letters and treatises. Through these he provides an important glimpse into the beliefs and practices of the early Church.
He was exiled twice and eventually martyred on September 14, 258. I have placed an account of his martyrdom here: The Martyrdom of St Cyprian
That the early Church was Catholic in her beliefs and practices is clear from reading the Fathers of the Church, of whom Cyprian is one. I present here a brief listing of some of his teachings that emphasize the Catholicity of the early Church. It is clear that things such as Confession, Holy Communion, Church authority and unity were all established at this time and that those who disputed them were departed from the received apostolic and Catholic faith. As these debates continue today it is good to have a voice from antiquity so clearly rebuke the common errors of today:
TEACHINGS OF NOTE AFFIRMING THE ANCIENT BELEIF OF CATHOLIC TEACHING:
That the Church was both founded and intended by Christ as a necessary means of salvation and that those who wilfully depart from the Church thus sin against the unity willed by Christ. If someone does not hold to this unity of the Church can he imagine that he still holds the faith?…He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother. If anyone outside the ark of Noah was able to escape, then perhaps someone outside the pale of the Church may escape….Does anyone believe that in the Church this unity, which proceeds from the divine stability and which is welded together after heavenly patterns can be divided and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? Whoever holds not fast to this unity holds not to the law of God…(The Unity of the Catholic Church 4,6) Letter of Cyprian to All His People,” 43)
That unity with the successor to St. Peter, the Pope, was an essential ingredient and expression of Church unity. The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you, you are rock and upon this rock I will build my Church…and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever things you bind on earth will be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth they shall be loosed also in heaven.’ (Mt 16:18-19). It is on one man that He builds the Church and although he assigns like powers to all the apostles after His resurrection ….nevertheless, in order that unity might be clearly shown, He established by His own authority a source for that unity which takes its beginning from one man alone. A primacy is given to Peter whereby it is clear that there is but one Church and one chair (“The Unity of the Catholic Church,” 4).
On the fact that there is one established faith and one altar around which ae are to gather: There is one God, and one Christ, and one Church and one chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering. (“Letter of Cyprian to All His People,” 43)
On the Confession of Sins to the Priests – St. Cyprian clearly taught that sins, especially serious sins, must be brought to the clergy for there to be reconciliation. His teachings in this regard are significant since they provide important evidence that the Sacrament of Confession was celebrated in the earliest days of the Church. St. Cyprian was bishop in the middle part of the Third Century. This means that by the middle 200’s A.D. confession was an expected remedy for serious sins. It is also interesting that Cyprian does not give lengthy explanations or defenses in requiring this practice of sinners under his care. This provides additional evidence that the practice of confession of sins to the clergy was an accepted or at least normative part of Church life that had been received from the earliest days. Here are some references to confession in St. Cyprian’s writings:
Finally, of how much greater faith and more salutary fear are those who…confess to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. Thus they remove the weight from their souls and seek the saving remedy for their wounds, however small and slight they be…I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned, confess his sin while he is still in the world, while his confession is still admissible, while satisfaction and remission made through the priests are pleasing before the Lord. (“The Lapsed,” 28).
We [i.e. the Bishops of North Africa] think that no one should be held back from the fruit of satisfaction…We know by our faith in the Divine Scriptures, of which God Himself is the author and initiator, both that sinners are brought back to repentance and that pardon and forgiveness are not denied the penitent. Inasmuch as the Lord is merciful and kind, we find that none of those imploring and entreating his mercy should be prohibited from doing penance, then peace is able to be extended through His priests. (“Letter to Bishop Antonianus,” 55).
On the need to receive Communion worthily- The anxious cares of my office and the fear of God leave me no choice but to send you…words of admonishment…Certain priests behave, without a thought or fear of God or respect for their bishop…They acting contrary to the law of the gospel…before penance has been done, before confession of the most serious and grievous of sins has been made, before there has been the imposition of hands by the bishop and clergy in reconciliation, they have the audacity to make the offering on their behalf and give them the Eucharist, that is to say, to profane the sacred body of the Lord. And this in spite of the words of Scripture: “He who has eaten the bread or drunk the cup of the Lord unworthily, will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:27) – (Letter 15 of Cyprian to the Martyrs and Confessors).
On the Necessity of frequently and worthily receiving Holy Communion – As the prayer [Our Father] continues we ask and say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We ask that this bread be given us daily, so that we who are in Christ and daily receive the Eucharist as the food of salvation may not, by falling into some more grievous sin and then, in abstaining from communion, be withheld from the heavenly Bread, and be separated from Christ’s Body…He Himself warns us saying, “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, You shall not have life in you” (Jn 6:54). Therefore we ask that our Bread, which is Christ, be given us daily that we who abide and live in Christ, may not withdraw from His sanctification and from His Body. (Treatise on the Our Father, 18)
On the necessity of Baptism and why infants should be baptized – As far as concerns the case of infants you [Fidus] expressed your view that they ought not be baptized within the second or third day after their birth; rather, that the ancient law on circumcision ought to be respected and you therefore concluded that the newly-born should not be baptized and sanctified before the eighth day. Our Council [of African Bishops] adopted an entirely different conclusion. No one agreed with your opinion on the matter; instead without exception, we all formed the judgement that it is not right to deny the mercy and the grace of God to any one that is born….We must do everything we possibly can to prevent the destruction of any soul….For just as God draws no distinction between persons, so neither does He between ages, but shows Himself Father equally to all, being evenhanded in the distribution of His heavenly graces….In our view no one is to be prevented from obtaining grace…Rather, every one without exception, has the right to be admitted to the grace of Christ. We ought not be the cause for debarring anyone from access to baptism and the grace of God for He is merciful, kind, and loving towards all men. And whilst this is a rule that ought to be observed and maintained concerning the whole of mankind, it is our view that it is to be observed most particularly in the case of newborn infants; they have all the more claim upon our assistance and God’s mercy for the reason that, right from the very first moment they are born, in their crying and wailing they are doing nothing else but imploring our help (Letter 64 to Fidus, 2,3,5).
On the Power of Grace to Transform – St. Cyprian taught emphatically on the power of God’s grace to effect dramatic change in one’s life. This he did not so much by a long discourse as in a vivid description of his own experience of what God did for him. In this testimony written in 247 A.D. he describes first his condition before baptism and then turns to a beautiful description of the glorious freedom of the children of God. And I myself was bound fast, held by so many errors of my past life, from which I did not believe I could extricate myself. I was disposed therefore to yield to my clinging vices; and, despairing of better ways, I indulged my sins…But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the waters of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man. And then in marvelous manner, doubts immediately clarified themselves, the closed opened…and what had been thought impossible was able to be done(Letter to Donatus, 4).