St. Cyprian   (c.200 – 258)



I.                   His Life


Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus, the noble bishop of Carthage, is one of the most attractive figures in early eccle­siastical literature. The Vita Caecilii Cypriana, which describes his con­version to the Christian faith, was written soon after his death by one closely related to him and thoroughly informed, according to St Jerome, by his deacon and companion Pontius. From his own writings, however, especially from his correspondence, we acquire a better knowledge of his life both private and public.


He was born about the year 200 in Africa, of wealthy heathen parents, embraced the career of a rhetorician and as such won brilliant renown at Carthage. About 246, he was converted to Christianity by Cae­cilianus or Caecilius, a priest of Carthage, soon after which he was admitted among the clergy. At the end of 248 or early in 249, he was made bishop of Carthage and metropolitan of proconsular Africa. He discharged the duties of this office during ten stormy years with indefatigable zeal and great success.

In the sanguinary persecution of Decius (250-251), during which he fled from Carthage and kept himself in concealment, many renounced the Christian faith and were known as sacrificati or thurificati, libellatici [1], acta facientes. The question regarding the treatment of these lapsi or rather the conditions of their reconciliation with the Church led to a schism at Carthage as well as at Rome. The deacon Felicissimus became the leader of a party which reproached Cyprian with his great severity, while at Rome a part of the com­munity ranged itself under the banner of Novatian and withdrew from communion with Pope Cornelius because of his excessive mildness in the treatment of similar «fallen» brethren.

The controversy on the validity of heretical baptism was the occasion of other grave disorders. Cyprian held with Tertullian that baptism administered by heretics was invalid ; he therefore baptized anew all who returned from an heretical body to the communion of the Church. In this he was sustained by several councils that met at Carthage under his presidency. But Pope Stephen I. rejected their views and de­clared : Si qui ergo a quacumque haeresi venient ad vos, nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est, ut manus illis imponatur in paeni­tentiam [2].

The ensuing persecution of Valerian and the death of the Pope prevented a formal conflict between Stephen and Cyprian, and amicable relations were restored between his successor and Cyprian. The latter was beheaded, September 14., 258, in the gardens of the pro­consular Villa Sexti, not far from Carthage ; the Acta proconsularia, or official record of his execution, are still extant.

St Cyprian is celebrated in the highest terms of praise by all antiquity as a model of a catholic bishop and pastor and administrator.



II.                His Writings


The writings of Cyprian, collected at a very early date, were read with diligence and zealously multiplied. Pontius himself possessed a collection of the treatises of Cyprian and has left us a rhetorical paraphrase of their titles or themes. It is to note that in an ancient and anonymous Catalogue of the Libri Canonici of the Old and New Testaments, the writings of Cyprian, both treatises and letters, are also indicated, with the number of lines contained in each. These works are still extant in almost countless manuscripts, some of which reach back to the sixth century. So far as we know, only a few of his letters have been lost.

His writings fall into two groups : treatises (sermones, libelli, tractati) and letters. The voice that resounds in both groups is that of a bishop and a shepherd of souls. He is a man of prac­tice and not of theory, a man of faith and not of speculation. When he takes up the pen, it is in behalf of practical aims and interests ; thus, where oral discourse is insufficient, he hastens to succour the good cause with his writings. He does not go far afield in theoretical discussion, but appeals to the Christian and ecclesiastical sentiments of his hearers, and bases his argument on the authority of the Sacred Scriptures. He exhibits on all occasions a spirit of moderation and mildness and a remarkable power of organisation. He never loses himself in pursuit of intangible ideals but follows consistently the aims that he has grasped with clearness and decision.

St Augustine outlined his character correctly when he called him a Catholic bishop and a Catholic martyr. The central idea of his life is the unity of the Catholic Church ; it has been rightly said that this concept is like the root whence issue all his doctrinal writings. Indeed, he is nowhere so independent and original as in his work De catholicae ecclesiae unitate.


In his other works he very frequently borrows from Tertullian ; we learn from the same source that he read the works of that writer every day. It was his wont when calling on his secretary for a book of Tertullian to exclaim : “ Da magistrum ! ”. At the same time, whatever the degree of his literary dependency, his own personality is apparent in every one of his writings. The thoughts of Cyprian may be close akin to the thoughts of Tertullian, but the form in which the bishop of Carthage clothes these thoughts differs widely from the style of Tertullian. The diction of Cyprian is free and pleasing, and flows in a tranquil and clear, almost transparent stream. His language is at all times enlivened and exalted by the warmth of his feelings. Quite frequently the page is coloured by images and allegories chosen with taste and finished with skilful attention to the smallest detail ; not a few of them became more or less the common places of later ecclesiastical literature.



III.             Treatises


Ad Donatum : an outpouring of his heart addressed to an other­wise unknown friend, for whom he depicts the new life entered on by baptismal regeneration ; it was probably composed shortly after his conversion.


De habitatu virginum, a pastoral letter to women, especially to those virgins who had dedicated themselves to the service of the Lord. Cyprian calls them «the blossom on the tree of the Church». He puts them on their guard particularly against vanity in dress. This treatise resembles very much the De cultu feminarum of Tertullian.


De lapsis, composed in the spring of 251, immediately after the persecution of Decius and his own return to Carthage. In it he laments most touchingly the apostasy of so many brethren ; their recon­ciliation must depend on a good confession and the performance of a corresponding penance.


To the same year belongs the immortal work De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, a forcible exposition and defence of the Church, to which alone were made the promises of salvation, and not to the schisms at Rome and Carthage. Christ founded His Church on one, on Peter ; the unity of the foundation guarantees that of the edifice. Schism and heresy are the weapons of Satan. That person cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother (habere non potest Deum patrem, qui ecclesiam non habet matrem).


De dominica oratione, written about the beginning of 252, is important chiefly for its lengthy exposition of the Lord's Prayer, a feature that made it much beloved in Christian antiquity.


Ad Demetrianum, probably composed early in 252, and markedly apologetic in tendency. The sufferings of these unhappy times, war, pestilence and famine, which the heathen to whom he writes attributed to the Christian contempt of the gods, are really divine punishments, inflicted on account of the obstinacy and wickedness of the heathens, and in particular of their persecution of the Christians.


The De mortalitate owes its origin to a pestilence that raged at Carthage and in the neighbourhood, especially from 252-254. It is such a discourse of consolation as a bishop might deliver, and breathes in every line a magnanimity of soul and a power of faith that are most touching. The fact that the pestilence carried off both the faithful and the unbelievers ought not to surprise the former, since by word and example the Scripture makes known to all Christians that it is their especial destiny to suffer trial and tribulation. Temptation is only the prelude of victory, trial an occasion of merit, and death the transit to a better life.


The De opere et eleemosynis, an ex­hortation to efficacious charity towards our neighbour, owes its origin, probably, to similar circumstances. Almsgiving is, in a certain sense, a means of obtaining grace ; it appeases the divine wrath and atones for our postbaptismal faults and entitles us to a higher degree of celestial happiness.


De bono patientiae was written during the conflict concerning heretical baptism, in the hope of calming the irritation and anger of his opponents, and as a pledge of the author’s own anxiety for the restoration of peace. It draws largely on the De patientia of Tertullian.

De zelo et livore was probably meant to complete the preceding treatise ; it is at once the work of a reconciling arbiter and a deciding judge. Envy and jealousy are poisonous growths that often strike deep roots in the soil of the Church, and bring forth the most de­plorable fruits : hatred, schism, dissatisfaction, insubordination.


Ad Fortunatum is a collection of passages from Holy Writ put together at the request of Fortunat, and likely to confirm the faithful soul in the tempest of persecution that had been raging since the middle of 257. Thirteen theses relative to this grievous trial are set forth; each of them is con­firmed by quotations from the Bible.


Ad Quirinum in three books, known formerly as Testimoniorum libri adversus Judaeos, contains a demonstration of the rejection of the Jews and the vocation of the Christians (Bk I), a sketch of Christology (Bk II), and an introduction to a Christian and virtuous life (Bk III). At the beginning of each book are several theses, each of which, after the manner of the treatise Ad Fortunatum, is in its turn proved by a series of citations from Holy Writ.


IV.              Letters


The collection of the Letters of Cyprian contains eighty-one pieces or numbers : sixty-five of which are from his hand ; the others are mostly letters addressed to him.

By reason of its very copious contents this collected correspondence of Cyprian is a primary source of authori­tative information concerning the life and discipline of the primitive Church. All the letters date from the period of his episcopal rule in Carthage (248/249-258).


The letters may be divided into the following groups :

a)      5 Letters whose dates cannot be ascertained ; they contain no references to contemporary persons or events, and probably were all composed before the per­secution of Decius. Letter 63, entitled in the manuscripts De sacra­mento dominici calicis, is a precious confirmation of the traditional Catholic doctrine concerning the sacrificial character of the Eucharist.

b)      13 Letters sent to Carthage in the first period of the Decian per­secution (250) ; they were addressed from his hiding place to the clergy and the faithful of the city. They contain exhortations to prudence, to perseverance on the part of the confessors, to care of the poor, and also some reproaches and de­cisions in the matter of the lapsi.

c)      12 Letters : The correspondence of Cyprian (representing the clergy of Carthage) with the Roman clergy in whose hands lay the government of the Church during the vacancy between the death of Fabian and the succession of Cornelius (Jan. 250 to March 251). In letter 20, 27 and 35, Cyprian justifies his flight and explains his manner of dealing with the lapsi ; 27 and 35. In letters 30 and 36, the Roman clergy, by the hand of Novatian, assure Cyprian that they are in full agreement with him as to the treatment of the lapsi.

d)      14 Letters sent to Carthage in the last period of the Decian per­secution (250-252).

e)      12 Letters of the years 251-252, relative to the troubles occasioned by the schism of Novatian. Scarcely had Cyprian been accurately informed of what was occurring at Rome, when he came out with decisive energy in favour of the legitimate pope Cornelius ; he could not, however, check the spread of the schism into Africa.    

f)       14 Letters of the years 252-254 ; the contents of which are of a miscellaneous nature ( ex : to Pope Cornelius apropos of the lapsi ; the baptism of children ).

g)      9 Letters of the years 254-256 : a synodal letter in the matter of Basilides and Martial, Spanish bishops, who had been deposed as lapsi, of validity of heretical baptism, of the opinions of the Synod of Carthage held in 255, of the decision of the spring Synod of 256 dealing with the subject of heretical baptism. There has also been preserved an extract from the minutes of the Synod of Carthage (September 256), in which the invalidity of heretical baptism was again asserted.

h)      2 Letters written during the persecution of Valerian (257- 258) : In letter 76 we have an admirable message of consolation from the exiled bishop to the martyrs in the mines. In letter 81 the shepherd of Carthage, while awaiting a martyr’s death, sends to his flock a final salutation.


There are also many spurious writings : the glorious name of Cyprian was soon invoked to cover many an supposititious composition.


[1]   Those who had obtained a certificate to have offered a sacrifice or incense to gods.

[2]   If people therefore come to you from any heresy whatever, let nothing be innovated which has not been handed down ; namely, that hands be imposed upon them for their repentance.