Many of the saints that we’ve discussed so far have been from the Holy Land or Europe, and we can get into the habit of thinking that the Church in turn was Roman, Greek, and a little Middle Eastern. It’s easy to forget that some of the most important Christian communities were in Africa. North Africa especially was predominantly and very enthusiastically Christian until the rise of Islam and the conquest of Africa between 647 and 709. Egypt saw the first monastic communities formed in its deserts. Huge centers of Christianity formed in Alexandria and Carthage, which is where our saint for today, St. Cyprian, became well known.
Cyprian was born around 200 AD and was very highly educated. He knew philosophy and became a great orator. Cyprian didn’t experience his Christian conversion until he was an adult. In his preparations for baptism, he pledged his life to chastity and gave his material possessions away to the poor. This left a pretty good impression on his people, and only two years after his baptism, he was ordained a priest, and then was chosen (against his will) to be the bishop of Carthage! It was at this time that he became the friend and companion of Pope St. Cornelius (remember him?) as they worked together to unify the Church.
Cyprian had to deal with the persecutions later, but one of his biggest struggles came about in the time of peace before the persecutions. He was concerned that the period of relative peace had caused people to forget the meaning of their faith. People had become too content to live their lives in the culture, only to compartmentalize their faith to worshipping on Sundays. Cyprian said that one of the things the persecutions taught them was how central living as a Christian had to be. He wrote letters about the virtue of modesty and trying to teach people Scripture. He even wrote against the gladiatorial games held in the arenas in Carthage. His point was that the only refuge from temptations is to live an authentically prayerful life in relationship with God.
In 256, persecutions flared up again under Valerian (who you might remember martyred St. Sixtus II). Cyprian wrote a letter anticipating the decree, encouraging his people to hold fast to their beloved faith, even if it meant martyrdom. When he himself was discovered, he was banished for a year, then recalled and kept prisoner in his own villa. Eventually the order came for his execution, and Cyprian voluntarily paid the executioner 25 gold pieces for his service. He removed his garments, knelt down, prayed, and blindfolded himself to face his martyrdom by the sword. Cyprian’s body was buried in Carthage, until in the 800’s, it was moved by Charlemagne to France, where he was placed alongside some of the remains of his friend, St. Cornelius.
See you next week for the patron saint of cooking – specifically barbecues!