Wednesday's Audience - On St. Cyprian
"His Book on the 'Our Father' Has Helped Me to Pray Better"
VATICAN CITY, JUNE 8, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Wednesday at the general audience in St. Peter's Square. The reflection focused on St. Cyprian.
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Dear brothers and sisters,
Continuing with our catechetical series on the great figures of the ancient Church, we arrive today to an excellent African bishop of the third century, St. Cyprian, "the first bishop in Africa to attain the crown of martyrdom." His fame, as his first biographer, the deacon Pontius, testifies, is linked to his literary production and pastoral activity in the 13 years between his conversion and his martyrdom (cf. "Vida" 19,1; 1,1).
St. Cyprian was born in Carthage to a rich pagan family. After a squandered youth, Cyprian converted to Christianity at age 35. He himself tells us about his spiritual pilgrimage: "When I was still in a dark night," he wrote months after his baptism, "it seemed to me extremely difficult and exhausting to do what the mercy of God was proposing to me. I was bound by many mistakes of my past life and I didn't think I could be free, to such extent that I would follow my vices and favored my sinful desires. Later, with the help of the regenerative water, the misery of my previous life was washed away; a sovereign light illumined my heart; a second birth restored me to a completely new life. In a marvelous way, all doubt was swept away. I understood clearly that what used to live in me were the worldly desires of the flesh and that, on the contrary, what the Holy Spirit had generated in me was divine and heavenly" ("A Donato," 3-4).
Immediately after his conversion Cyprian, despite envy and resistance, was chosen for the priestly office and elevated to the dignity of bishop. In the brief period of his episcopacy, he faced the two first persecutions mandated by imperial decree: Decius' in 250 and Valerian's in 257-258. After the particularly cruel persecution of Decius, the bishop had to work hard to restore order in the Christian community. Many faithful, in fact, had renounced their faith or had not reacted adequately in the face of such a test. These were the so-called lapsi, that is, "fallen," who fervently desired to re-enter the community.
The debate regarding their readmission divided the Christians of Carthage into those who were lax and those who were rigorists. To these difficulties was added a serious plague that scourged Africa and posed grave theological questions both within the Church and in regard to the pagans. Finally, we must remember the controversy between St. Cyprian and the Bishop of Rome, Stephen, regarding the validity of baptism administered to the pagans by heretical Christians.
Amid these truly difficult circumstances, Cyprian showed a true gift for governing: He was strict, but not inflexible with the "fallen," giving them the possibility of forgiveness after a period of exemplary penance; in regard to Rome, he was firm in his defense of the traditions of the Church in Africa; he was extremely understanding and full of a truly, authentic evangelical spirit when exhorting Christians to fraternal assistance toward pagans during the plague; he knew how to maintain the proper balance when reminding the faithful, quite afraid of losing both their lives and their material possessions, that their true life and authentic goods are not of this world; he was unyielding in fighting the corrupt practices and sins that destroy the moral life, especially avarice.
"Thus were his days spent," narrates Deacon Pontius, "when by the command of the proconsul, unexpectedly, the police arrived at this house" ("Vida," 15,1). That day the holy bishop was arrested and, after a brief interrogation, courageously faced martyrdom amid his people.
Cyprian composed numerous treatises and letters, always linked to his pastoral ministry. Seldom given to theological speculation, he wrote mostly for the edification of the community and to encourage the good behavior of the faithful. In fact, the Church was his favorite subject. He distinguishes between the hierarchical "visible Church" and the mystical "invisible Church," but he strongly affirms that the Church is one, founded on Peter.
He never tires of repeating that "he who abandons the Chair of Peter, upon which the Church is founded, lives in the illusion that he still belongs to the Church" ("The Unity of the Catholic Church," 4).
Cyprian knew well, and strongly stated it, that "there is no salvation outside the Church" (Epistle 4,4 and 73,21), and that "he who doesn't have the Church as his mother can't have God as his Father" ("The Unity of the Catholic Church," 4).
Unity is an irrevocable characteristic of the Church, symbolized by Christ's seamless garment (Ibid., 7): a unity that, as he says, finds its ...
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