A Truly Christian Unity: Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian
The story of Pope St. Cornelius and of St. Cyprian of Carthage is a story about persecution, courage, and truth. For me, though, it’s also a story about the importance of unity and mercy in the Church. You see, the Emperor Decius ordered the first large-scale and organized persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. As a result, Christians found themselves without a pope. Pope St. Fabian was martyred on January 20th, 250, but no one wanted to take the chair of St. Peter since it would clearly result in a horrible death. These were very difficult times.
So it was that, well over a year after the death of the previous pope, in March of 251 a priest named Cornelius came forward willing to be the twenty-first pope. He was, by his own admission, not the brightest man in Rome. But he was clearly courageous, willing to suffer death at the hands of the empire, and he had the opportunity to test this courage right out of the gate though this first test came from within the Church not out.
The persecutions of the Christians across the Empire resulted in many apostates, i.e. Christians who rejected the faith by pledging allegiance to the Emperor as divine. Later, some of those apostates repented of their infidelity and wished to return. In North Africa a priest named Novatian insisted that apostates should not be allowed back into the fold. Along with them, Novatian argued, murderers, adulterers, and fornicators must be kicked out of the Church forever.
Now, against this rigorist approach was Cyprian, the bishop of the North African city of Carthage. When the Decian persecutions had started in Carthage, scores of Christians stumbled over themselves to sacrifice to the “divine” Emperor and show their allegiance to him by turning bishop over to the Romans. “Cyprian to the lions!” was their battle cry. So Cyprian went into hiding, which resulted in many faithful Christians calling him a coward. But it was while in hiding that Cyprian could write several letters to the faithful encouraging them to persevere. A fact they later appreciated.
When the persecutions were over, with the death of the Emperor Decius, Novatian began his campaign to kick out Christians who had committed mortal sins. It was Cyprian, then, who wrote to Pope Cornelius that Novatian’s teaching should be condemned, and he gave the Holy Father the theological ammunition to reject that false teaching. Novatian responded by making his way to Rome to set himself up as the first anti-pope. Smarter and more eloquent a preacher than Cornelius, Novatian was sure he could rally the bishops of the Church around his point of view. But it was Cornelius’ courage and Cyprian’s theological writings that helped stem the tide. A synod of bishops called by Pope Cornelius settled the matter once and for all, and one of the earliest attempts to remake Church teaching by seizing the papacy ended.
Pope Cornelius would die in exile in the year 253 and was considered a martyr. Cyprian, his friend and great help during the two-year reign, would live a few years longer. He too was martyred in the year 257.
Pope St. Cornelius and St. Cyprian of Carthage were not perfect men. But it was perhaps their imperfections that allowed them to understand the importance of mercy for repentant souls. They share September 16th as their feast, and they are mentioned side by side in the Rome Canon of the Mass.
Their lives show us that none of us has to have all the answers. As St. Paul says in several places, there are many gifts of the Spirit and one body. We don’t have to be perfect. We just need to lean on Christ Jesus and on our neighbors. Together, unified, we can confront the evil of this world. This is why, when there are those in social media and elsewhere who foster division and disunity, who put themselves up to be the pope, we should be very careful. Remember the two saints for today and pray for their intercession to help heal the wounds within the Church.
Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian, pray for us.