As we noted on Wednesday, St Cyprian of Carthage was martyred on September 14th, 258, but his feast day is the 16th, bumped forward by the Exaltation of the Cross. Since at least the mid-6th century, the Roman Church has kept his feast jointly with Pope St Cornelius, who was martyred five years before him. This custom may derive at least in part from an erroneous statement of St Jerome (De viris illustribus 67) that they died on the same date, but it is also possible that that statement reflects what was already an established liturgical custom in the later 4th century.
In any case, their joint celebration also reflects their close collaboration in dealing with the two great crises that beset the Church in the mid-3rd century: the outbreak of the first general persecution in 250, and the thorny question that emerged from it of what to do about those who under threat of persecution, had denied their faith by sacrificing to the pagan gods, known as “lapsi – the lapsed”, or pretending to do so.
This persecution had caught the Church largely unawares, since previous persecutions had been local and sporadic, and by 250, had hardly occurred at all for about five decades. However, after the scandalously large number of lapsi in the first wave, the Roman Church saw none at all in the second wave in early 253, which prompted St Cyprian to write this letter of congratulations (Ep. 56) to his brother bishop Cornelius.
(Saints Anthony the Abbot, Cornelius and Cyprian, 1565-71, by Paolo Veronese. Cornelius is dressed in the gold cope, with the papal tiara next to him, Cyprian in red, the color of martyrs; Anthony, the titular Saint of the abbey for which this painting was made, sits above them wearing a green cope.)
“Cognovimus, frater carissime, fidei ac virtutis vestræ testimonia gloriosa: et confessionis vestræ honorem sic exsultanter accepimus, ut in meritis ac laudibus vestris nos quoque participes et socios computemus. Nam cum nobis et Ecclesia una sit, et mens juncta, et individua concordia; quis non sacerdos in consacerdotis sui laudibus tamquam in suis propriis gratuletur? aut quæ fraternitas non in fratrum gaudio ubique lætetur? Exprimi satis non potest, quanta istic exsultatio fuerit et quanta lætitia, cum de vobis prospera et fortia comperissemus, ducem te illic confessionis fratribus exstitisse; sed et confessionem ducis de fratrum confessione crevisse: ut dum præcedis ad gloriam, multos feceris gloriæ comites, et confessorem populum suaseris fieri, dum primus paratus es pro omnibus confiteri; ut non inveniamus quid prius prædicare in vobis debeamus, utrumnam tuam promptam et stabilem fidem, an inseparabilem fratrum caritatem. Virtus illic episcopi præcedentis publice comprobata est, adunatio sequentis fraternitatis ostensa est. Dum apud vos unus animus et una vox est, Ecclesia omnis Romana confessa est. Claruit, frater carissime, fides quam de vobis beatus Apostolus prædicavit. Hanc laudem virtutis et roboris firmitatem jam tunc in spiritu prævidebat, et præconio futurorum merita vestra contestans, dum parentes laudat, filios provocabat. Dum sic unanimes, dum sic fortes estis, magna et cæteris fratribus unanimitatis et fortitudinis exempla tribuistis. Docuistis granditer Deum timere, Christo firmiter adhærere, plebem sacerdotibus in periculo jungi, in persecutione fratres a fratribus non separari; concordiam simul junctam vinci omnino non posse; quidquid simul petitur a cunctis, Deum pacis pacificis exhibere.
We have learned, dearest brother, of the glorious testimonies of your faith and courage, and have received the honor of your confession with such exultation, that we count ourselves also among those who share in and are companions of your merits and praises. For as we have one Church, a mind united, and a concord undivided, what priest does not glory in the praises of his fellow-priest as if on his own; or what brotherhood would not rejoice in the joy of its brethren wherever they are? It cannot be sufficiently declared how great was the exultation here, and how great the joy,when we had heard of your success and bravery, that you had stood forth there as a leader of confession to the brethren; and, moreover, that the confession of the leader had increased by that of the brethren; so that, while you precede them to glory, you have made many your companions in glory, and have persuaded the people to become a confessor by being first prepared to confess on behalf of all; so that we are at a loss as to what we ought to commend in you first, whether your ready and unwavering faith, or your inseparable love of the brethren. Among you the courage of the bishop going before has been publicly proved, and the union of the brotherhood following has been shown. Since among you there is one mind and one voice, the whole Roman Church has confessed. The faith, dearest brother, which the blessed apostle commended in you has shone brightly. He even then in the spirit foresaw this praise of courage and firmness of strength; and, attesting your merits by the commendation of your future deeds, in praising the parents, he stirs on the children. While you are thus unanimous, while you are thus brave, you have given great examples both of unanimity and of bravery to the rest of the brethren. You have taught them to fear God greatly, to cling firmly to Christ; you have taught them that the people should be joined to the priests in peril; that the brethren should not be separated from brethren in persecution; that a concord, once established, can by no means be overcome; that the God of peace will grant to the peaceful whatever is at the same time asked by all.”
Cornelius himself was exiled to Centumcellae (the modern port city of Civitavecchia, about 50 miles up the coast from Rome), and died there in June of 253.