In our day and age, we can no longer presume we will not be asked to suffer martyrdom. Christianity and adhering to the Truth Christ reveals is becoming an increasingly dangerous way of life to live in America and throughout the world.
With this ever in Her mind, the Church is wise to hold up for us courageous witnesses who have gone before us in faith! Reminding us of the fact that those who have endured “to the end” now enjoy heavenly crowns of glory! As 2 Tim 2: 11-12 states:
“If we have died with him we shall also live with him; If we persevere, we shall also reign with him.”
We recently celebrated the memory of two martyrs of the early Church, Pope St. Cornelius and St. Cyprian. In Cornelius’ biography he is characterized as the “reluctant 21st pope, elected after a year-and-a-half period during which the persecutions were so bad that papal ascension was a quick death sentence.” He was elected in 251 during the time of the Decius persecutions. The threat of schism also loomed darkly upon the Church as Novatian claimed that he was the rightful Pope. In this time of great uncertainty, he called a synod of bishops that confirmed Cornelius to be the rightful pontiff and opposed Novatian. Two of his staunch supporters were Saint Cyprian of Carthage (with whom he shares his feast day) and Saint Dionysius.
One of the great legacies of his Papacy is the mercy he showed to those who apostacized during the persecutions of Decius. He taught that the Church welcomes back those who disowned and betrayed their Savior and fellow Christians out of fear when confronted with torture and death. His pastoral teaching on this matter settled a great debate within the Church and is seen as evidence that the Pope has final authority in dealing with disputes.
He was exiled within a year of his election (due to the belief that Christians provoked the gods into sending plagues against Rome) and was martyred just a year later. A document from Cornelius shows the size of the Church in Rome during his papacy –noting that Rome had 46 priests, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, and approximately 50,000 Christians.
In the face of Cornelius’ courageous witness, his friend Cyprian, Bishop in Carthage (in Northern Africa), wrote him a letter of encouragement. Amazingly, nearly 1800 years later, we can still read his words:
Cyprian sends greetings to his brother Cornelius. My very dear brother, we have heard of the glorious witness given by your courageous faith. On learning of the honor you had won by your witness, we were filled with such joy that we felt ourselves sharers and companions in your praiseworthy achievements. After all, we have the same Church, the same mind, the same unbroken harmony. Why then should a priest not take pride in the praise given to a fellow priest as though it were given to him? What brotherhood fails to rejoice in the happiness of its brothers wherever they are?
Words cannot express how great was the exultation and delight here when we heard of your good fortune and brave deeds: how you stood out as leader of your brothers in their declaration of faith, while the leader’s confession was enhanced as they declared their faith. You led the way to glory, but you gained many companions in that glory; being foremost in your readiness to bear witness on behalf of all, you prevailed on your people to become a single witness. We cannot decide which we ought to praise, your own ready and unshaken faith or the love of your brothers who would not leave you. While the courage of the bishop who thus led the way has been demonstrated, at the same time the unity of the brotherhood who followed has been manifested. Since you have one heart and one voice, it is the Roman Church as a whole that has thus born witness.
Dearest brother, bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle praised in your community. He foresaw in the spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that could not be broken; he was heralding the future when he testified to your achievements; his praise of the fathers was a challenge to the sons. Your unity, your strength have become shining examples of these virtues to the rest of the brethren.
Divine providence has now prepared us. God’s merciful design has warned us that the day of our own struggle, our own contest, is at hand. By that shared love which binds us close together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils and prayers in common. These are the heavenly weapons which give us the strength to stand firm and endure; they are the spiritual defenses, the God-given armaments that protect us.
Let us then remember one another, united in mind and heart. Let us pray without ceasing, you for us, we for you; by the love we share we shall thus relieve the strain of these great trials. (See Divineoffice.org)
Saint Cyprian of Carthage, would go on to suffer martyrdom five years later, during the persecutions of Valerian in 258.
So, what can we learn from these two great men of faith as we face our own present day persecutions?
I’m sure there are countless things we can learn, but there are five in particular that I would like to point out:
1. How good and holy it is to take notice of the trials others are enduring and to make the effort to encourage them in concrete ways (such a writing a letter).
“Cyprian sends greetings to his brother Cornelius. My very dear brother, we have heard of the glorious witness given by your courageous faith.”
2. Cyprian notes that the honor shown to Cornelius is shared by all those who are united with him in heart and spirit. Cyprian proclaims that we are “sharers and companions [in each others’] praiseworthy achievements.” Therefore, should we not rejoice in each others’ gifts and graces — knowing that we share in every good gift given to one another for we are all one in Christ?! With this proper understanding, there is no room for envy in the Church. Rather, because the saints are alive in Christ, we not only share in the graces that helped them remain faithful, but we also share in their living prayers offered for us still today!!!
“After all, we have the same Church, the same mind, the same unbroken harmony.”
3. Notice the joy, glory and honor Cyprian attributes to Cornelius and to all those who are courageous and declare their faith in Christ in the face of persecution and death! What a wondrous paradox that echoes the witness of the apostles who “rejoiced that they will able to share in the sufferings of Christ”(1 Pet 4: 13; Acts 5: 41) and Jesus’ proclamation:
“He who wishes to save his life will lose it and he who loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it!” Mark 8:35
4. Note the interconnectedness of the Body of Christ — the Church! When the Pope stands up in courage he encourages and ennobles his whole flock to stand fast in faith and courage as well. Likewise, the Pope is strengthened and encouraged by his people’s witness and faithfulness!
Thus, each time we bear witness to Christ with
“one heart and one voice, it is the Roman Church as a whole that has thus born witness.”
5. Lastly and most importantly, how urgent, how vital it is for us to never cease loving and praying for one another! What great compassion, love and gratitude we should have those who are being MARTYRED TODAY!!! How we must stand united in love and prayer with them! These men, women and children are holding fast to Christ; and in the unity of the Church, they are strengthening every one of us by their bravery and witness! How deeply should we love them for their sacrifice and all those who hold us up in prayer as we undergo our trails! These events in our modern world should help us recognize that
“Divine providence has now prepared us. God’s merciful design has warned us that the day of our own struggle, our own contest, is at hand.”
THEREFORE, OUR LOVE FOR CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH SHOULD COMPEL US TO NEVER CEASE PRAYING!!!! Not just halfhearted prayers murmured occasionally whenever we remember, but constant, heartfelt prayers, which plead for mercy and grace upon ourselves and upon the world!
“By that shared love which binds us close together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils and prayers in common. These are the heavenly weapons which give us the strength to stand firm and endure; they are the spiritual defenses, the God-given armaments that protect us.”
When I read these words I had to ask myself:
Are we doing all we can to exhort one another?
Are we doing all we can for ourselves and for those undergoing the trial?
Are we giving ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils and prayers in common?
Do we recognize that these are the heavenly weapons which give us the strength to stand firm and endure?
Do we recognize they are the spiritual defenses, the God-given armaments that protect us?
I understand. No one wants to think about things these things. I don’t either. It is easier to look away when we see Christians being lined up and brutally murdered. It is easier to look away and pretend that over 1 BILLION BABIES worldwide (YES, heartbreakingly you read that correctly) haven’t been torn apart in their mother’s womb.
But, what are the consequences of our complacency?
What are the consequences for our souls and for future of the world?
These are sobering times and this is a sobering message. But, it is one that is filled with hope! For “we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus!” (Rom 8:37). For His faithful ones, He has prepared a place for us so wondrous that
“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor mind conceived what God has in store for us!” (1 Cor 2: 9).
Dear SS. Cornelius and Cyprian, assist us with your prayers, so that we can hold fast to your example and words exhorting us to:
“Let us then remember one another, united in mind and heart. Let us pray without ceasing, you for us, we for you; by the love we share we shall thus relieve the strain of these great trials.”
For more writings by St. Cyprian and for a firsthand account of his martyrdom, see below:
You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother…. God is one and Christ is one, and his Church is one; one is the faith, and one is the people cemented together by harmony into the strong unity of a body…. If we are the heirs of Christ, let us abide in the peace of Christ; if we are the sons of God, let us be lovers of peace. – Saint Cyprian, from The Unity of the Catholic Church
Whatever a man prefers to God, that he makes a god to himself. – Saint Cyprian
Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides of death always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence the first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy. – Saint Cyprian from Letters, 253
On the morning of the 14th of September, a great crowd gathered at the Villa Sexti, in accordance with the order of the governor Galerius Maximus. That same day the governor commanded Bishop Cyprian to be brought before him for trial. After Cyprian was brought in, the governor asked him, “Are you Thascius Cyprian?” The bishop replied, “Yes, I am.” The governor Galerius Maximus said, “You have set yourself up as an enemy of the gods of Rome and our religious practices. You have been discovered as the author and leader of these heinous crimes, and will consequently be held forth as an example for all those who have followed you in your crime. By your blood the law shall be confirmed.” Next he read the sentence from a tablet. “It is decided that Cyprian should die by the sword.” Cyprian responded, “Thanks be to God!” After the sentence was passed, a crowd of his fellow Christians said, “We should also be killed with him!” There arose an uproar among the Christians, and a great mob followed after him. Cyrprian was then brought out to the grounds of the Villa Sexti, where, taking off his outer cloak and kneeling on the ground, he fell before the Lord in prayer. He removed his dalmatic and gave it to the deacons, and then stood erect while waiting for the executioner. When the executioner arrived, Cyprian told his friends to give the man 25 gold pieces. The most Blessed martyr Cyprian suffered on the 14th of September under the emperors Valerian and Gallienus, in the reign of our true Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belong honor and glory for ever. Amen. – from the Acts of the Martyrdom of Saint Cyprian by Saint Pontius
You who are envious, let me tell you that however often you may seek for the opportunity of injuring him whom you hate, you will never be able to do him so much harm as you do harm to yourselves. He whom you would punish through the malice of your envy, may probably escape, but you will never be able to fly from yourselves. Wherever you may be your adversary is with you, your sin rankles within. It must be a self-willed evil to persecute a person whom God has taken under the protection of His grace; it becomes an irremedial sin to hate a man whom God wishes to make happy. Envy is as prolific as it is hurtful; it is the root of all evil, the source of endless disorder and misery, the cause of most sins that are committed. Envy gives birth to hatred and animosity. From it avarice is begotten, for it sees with an evil eye honors and emoluments heaped upon a stranger, and thinks that such honors should have been, by right, bestowed upon himself. From envy comes contempt of God, and of the salutary precepts of our Savior. The envious man is cruel, proud, unfaithful, impatient, and quarrelsome; and, what is strange, when this vice gains the mastery, he is no longer master of himself, and he is unable to correct his many faults. If the bond of peace is broken, if the rights of fraternal charity are violated, if truth is altered or disguised, it is often envy that hurries him on to crime. What happiness can such a man enjoy in this world? To be envious or jealous of another, because such a one is virtuous and happy, is to hate in him the graces and blessings God has showered down upon him. Does he not punish himself when he sees the success and welfare of others? Does he not draw down upon himself tortures from which there is no respite? Are not his thoughts, his mind, constantly on the rack? He pitilessly punishes himself, and, in his heart, performs the same cruel office which Divine Justice reserves for the chastisement of the greatest criminal. – Saint Cyprian