The Catholic Defender: Sts. Pope Cornelius and Bishop Cyprian, Martyrs
It was May 15th, 33 A.D., the Apostles were gathered together as Jesus instructed them to go to the Mountain of Bethany (Eastern slope of the Mount of Olives). “When they saw Jesus, they worshiped, but they doubted (Matthew 28:17).
The Apostles asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel? He answered them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”Acts 1:6-7
If you recall, Jesus earlier stated that only the Father knew the answer to the Apostles question, “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Matthew 24:36
Like the Apostles on that Mid May day, I may be asking the same question, and we can talk about the possibilities of prophecy in scripture, but in the end, nobody knows the day or the hour. What Jesus tells the eleven apostles next is very important.
“All power in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
Jesus then raised his hands blessing his apostles (Luke 24:50), just like we receive the final blessing at Mass, It was at this point, that Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood besides them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
The Old Testament Prophet Zechariah writes of Jesus return about 520 B.C., “That day his feet shall rest upon the Mount of Olives, which is opposite Jerusalem to the east.” Zechariah 14:4
Of Jesus ascension, the Old Testament Prophet Daniel writes, “One like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven; When he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him, He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.” Daniel 7:13-15
Once Jesus received this kingship, he then dispenses His keys to Simon Son of Bar-Jonah now called Peter (Matthew 16:17-19) as He had promised. This would be the birth of the Papacy.
St. Paul, first known as Saul at first persecuted the Catholic Church. He was there at the stoning of St. Stephen, the first recorded Catholic Martyr (Acts 7:58). But Jesus would personally intervene and call Saul to be His follower (Acts 9:1-9).
1 Corinthians 15:3, St. Paul writes, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Kephas (Peter), then to the Twelve.”
St. Paul is speaking to the importance of the Catholic Faith as we are saved by Jesus Christ through His Church. “Now I am reminding you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand. Through it (the Church) you are also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-2
As St. Paul was given His ministry for our benefit giving us the mystery of our Catholic Faith (Ephesians 3:1-3), so too all those ordained through Apostolic Succession beginning with the Apostles down to our very time.
In the year 251, the young Church was placed in the midst of a lot of swirling storms. The Roman Emperor Decius was seeking to put an end to Christianity. The anti-pope Novatian threatened the unity within the Church.
Because of the horrible persecution of Decius against the Church, an issue erupted within the Church.
Novatian was a noted theologian. It was through his influence that the Latin Language was first used. Novatus challenged Pope Cornelius (the 20th successor of Peter 251-253 A.D.) on the problem of what to do with lapsed Catholics who wished to return.
Novatian refused to re-admit communion to the lapsed Catholics who had renounced their faith and performed ritual sacrifice to the Pagan gods under the pressure of persecution. From the Council of Jerusalem (49 A.D.) the Apostles states, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.” Acts 15:28-29
Pope Cornelius ruled that a strict Penance be given to any penitent wishing to return back into the fold. This would be the Apostolic authority handed down to have mercy on the repentant sinner. Novatus is a reminder of how bitter it was in 251 that the persecution would be so horrible. This is part of what Jesus foretells that His Church would be His Witnesses throughout the whole world. The Greek root word for witness is Martus, where the word Martyr is given.
St. Pope Cornelius writes to the bishops of a synod of 60 bishops that secured the office of Papacy against the anti-Pope Novatus, that within Rome there were as many as 50,000 Christians. There were 46 priests serving these people, 7 deacons and 7 subdeacons, the Church was caring for 1,500 widows.
Ultimately, Pope Cornelius was captured by the Romans as he was serving the people of God. He was exiled to do hard labor at Civitavcchia, not far from Rome and the people he served. There, it is reported that St. Pope Cornelius was beheaded as St. Paul had died.
Like St. Pope Cornelius, the Church celebrates St. Cyprian, Bishop and martyr, friend of Pope Cornelius. St. Cyprian was a Catholic convert whose parents were wealthy Pagans. He was born in 190 A.D. and at age 56, was received into the Catholic Church. A year later, St. Cyprian was ordained a Priest. With his elevation to Bishop, St. Cyprian wrote extensively defending the unity of the Church, he defended the authority of the bishops especially the primacy of the See of Rome.
St. Cyprian wrote, “You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother”. Galatians 4:26 states, “But the Jerusalem above is freeborn, and she is our mother… Therefore, brothers, we are children not of the slave woman but of the freeborn woman.” We are not the children of Eve who brought about sin and slavery, but the children of the freeborn, the Immaculate Conception, Mary who was the freeborn woman. Galatians 4:31
St. John would identify closely with this woman writing, “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Revelation 12:1
With this vision of Mother Mary, St. Cyprian also recognized through this woman, the people of both the Old and New Testaments were symbolized. the Israel of old gave birth to the Messiah, and then became the new Israel, the Church, which suffers persecution from the dragon, such as both St. Pope Cornelius and Cyprian. The Church as our mother is seen in vs 17, “Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of God’s offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness (martyrdom) to Jesus.”
Mary being “Mother of the Church” is closely identified with the Church, the Church being the bride of Christ.
St. Cyprian held three Councils, the last one had 87 bishops that gathered proclaiming that there could be no baptism outside the Catholic Church. They were particularly addressing the baptism of Novatus which was totally rejected. Furthermore, they stated that there could be no valid faith, hope, or salvation outside the Church. That was crucial in understanding the Catholic Church’s view regarding the different heresies.
When a new persecution against Christians spread under the Emperor Valerian (253-259), the Carthaginian proconsul Paternus ordered the saint to offer sacrifice to idols. St. Cyprian steadfastly refused to do this. He also refused to give the names and addresses of the priests of the church of Carthage. They sent the saint to the city of Curubis, into exile.
On the day the saint arrived at the place of exile he had a vision, predicting for him a quick martyr’s end. While in exile, St Cyprian wrote many letters and books. Desiring to suffer at Carthage, he returned there. Taken before the court, he was set at liberty until the following year. Nearly all the Christians of Carthage came to take leave of their bishop and receive his blessing.
At the trial, St Cyprian calmly and firmly refused to offer sacrifice to idols and was sentenced to beheading with a sword. Hearing the sentence, St Cyprian said, “Thanks be to God!” All the people cried out with one voice, “Let us also be beheaded with him!”
Coming to the place of execution, the saint again gave his blessing to all and arranged to give twenty-five gold coins to the executioner. He then tied a handkerchief over his eyes, and gave his hands to be bound to the executioner standing near him and lowered his head. Christians put their cloths and napkins in front of him so as to collect the martyr’s blood. St Cyprian was executed in the year 258 (September 14). The body of the saint was taken by night and given burial in a private crypt of the procurator Macrobius Candidianus.
It is believed that his holy relics were transferred to France in the time of King Charles the Great (i.e. Charlemagne, 771-814).
St Cyprian of Carthage left the Church a precious legacy: his writings and 80 letters. The works of St Cyprian were important teachings that were read at two Ecumenical Councils (Ephesus and Chalcedon).
In the Church Christ comprises all the fullness of life and salvation. Those having separated themselves from the unity of the Church do not have true life in themselves. Christian love is shown as the bond that holds the Church together. “Love is the foundation of all the virtues, and it continues with us eternally in the Heavenly Kingdom.”
As the Apostles before them, Sts. Pope Cornelius and Bishop Cyprian received the great commission to take the gospel to to all the nations, giving their lives for the service of those in their care. Their legacy today is remembered in the same Church they so strongly defended.
The prayer of St. Polycarp:
Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your annointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise.
I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through him be glory to you, together with him and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.