Today the church celebrates two early saints and martyrs, Cornelius, a pope who died in 253, and Cyprian, a bishop who was martyred in Roman Africa shortly after in 258.
At the time barbarian tribes in the west and the Persians in the east were invading Roman territory; the Roman emperors Decius and Valerian called for absolute loyalty from their people. The empire was imperiled.
To prove their loyalty, Roman citizens lined to offer sacrifice in honor of the emperor. Christians refused, and so at first church leaders were executed or imprisoned, wealthy, influential Christians lost their property, their positions and possibly their lives. Finally, all Christians could expect punishment for not performing the rites of sacrifice.
Not every Christian remained loyal to the faith at the time. Many offered sacrifice, betraying their faith, then afterwards sought to return to the church. Hard liners called for them to be banned for life for their lack of loyalty. Let God judge them when they die, they said. Others, like Cornelius and Cyprian, called to reconcile them after a time of penance, since God is all merciful.
Mercy and justice are always hard to reconcile. The gospels come down on the side of mercy. So should we.
In the persecution, Cornelius, bishop of Rome, was executed first, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in Africa, was executed a few years later. The two men were from different social backgrounds and not always on good terms, historians say, but they found support in their common faith, as this letter of Cyprian to Cornelius, written shortly before Cornelius’ death, reveals:
“Cyprian to my brother Cornelius,
Dearest brother, bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle praised in your community. He foresaw in spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that can 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 us. 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 defences, 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.”
Love shared relieves the strain of trials.