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St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage

III Century
Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus was born c. 200 into a wealthy pagan family in Carthage. Well-educated, he became a rhetorician and a lawyer. He became a Christian c. 246 and took the name Caecilius in honor of the priest Caecilius who had converted him. Two years later, Cyprian became bishop of Carthage. During the Decian persecution (250/251), Cyprian left Carthage and ruled his flock by letter. His action has been much criticized.

Returning to Carthage, he faced questions concerning the treatment of those who had lapsed during the persecutions and who was the bishop of Carthage. Those in favor of general forgiveness had appointed Fortunatus bishop of the city, and those in favor of general punishment had appointed Maximus. Maintaining that he was still the bishop, Cyprian favored a middle course, readmission of the lapsed after suitable penance.

Cyprian clashed with Pope Stephen I of Rome over the question of the validity of baptism by heretics. Cyprian proclaimed that such baptisms are invalid, and the pope threatened to excommunicate him. Stephen also opposed Cyprian's position on the status of the lapsed.

In 252, a plague hit Carthage, and in spite of Christian relief efforts, which Cyprian encouraged and supported, the pagan government blamed the Christians for the outbreak. When another round of persecutions began six years later, Cyprian was arrested, and when he refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, he was beheaded.

Cyprian is now considered to have been a model bishop. His works on the lapsed and on the unity of the church are also well-regarded.

Karen Rae Keck


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