Note: Great Conversion Stories is a new feature in the alumni portal blog. In this blog, alumnus John Janaro (’85), associate professor emeritus of theology at Christendom College, shares a great conversion story each month. You can follow John Janaro’s blog at www.johnjanaro.com. The Conversion story is reprinted from the excellent Dominican monthly devotional magazine called Magnificat (www.magnificat.com). Young alumni (under 25) can get a discount on the Magnificat magazine by visiting www.magnificat.com/under25.)
Great Conversion Stories: Saint Cyprian of Carthage
The ancient Phoenician capital of Carthage was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Punic Wars in 146 B.C. But the conquers built on its ruins a new city, which became the capital of the imperial province of Africa. Roman Carthage was a sophisticated place with great wealth and prestigious civil institutions by the time Thascius Cyprianus was born there around the year A.D. 200.
We know a lot about Cyprian as bishop, martyr, and important Latin Church Father, but not much about his pre-Christian life. His deacon and biographer, Pontius, and Cyprian himself give only a few details, but what they reveal is significant, and gives us some sense of the way that faith was often communicated in the early Church.
Cyprian came from a prominent pagan family, and became a public official and a leading citizen of Carthage. He was a man of wealth and status, accustomed to a life of luxury, expensive ornamental clothing, the finest food, and the pursuit of political ambition. Cyprian tells us that he had “grown old” in his habits (he was probably over forty years old at the time of his baptism). Something happened that changed him from a rich, decadent, middle-aged Roman magistrate to a fiery apostle for Jesus Christ and the Church who was willing to endure privations and dangers, and ultimately to give his life for his faith.
The grace of this remarkable conversion came through the ordinary circumstances of a human companionship. While immersed in all his busy affairs, Cyprian met a Christian named Cecilius, who accompanied him in friendship and bore witness to Jesus in a compelling manner. Cecilius was a priest who also had a wife and family. What we know indicates that he and Cyprian developed a warm, familiar friendship over time. On his deathbed Cecilius entrusted his wife and children to the care of Cyprian, which shows the level of trust and esteem that they had for each other.
Cecilius was clearly a man who was accessible to someone like Thascius Cyprianus, a public figure in the pagan Carthage of the 3rd century. He opened his heart and his home to Cyprian, who found within this hospitality the possibility for a new way of life. Cyprian tells us that he was greatly attracted by this life, but at first it seemed impossible for someone like him to change from his selfish, ambitious, indulgent lifestyle. With the help of Cecilius, however, Cyprian studied the Scriptures, and the attraction of Christ won his heart. While still a catechumen, he committed himself to chastity (a significant change from his former ways). He also sold his extensive properties and gave the money to the poor.
In all this, Cecilius (along with his household) was such a companion, support, and inspiration, that Cyprian took his friend’s name at the baptismal font on Easter of the year 246. Thascius Cecilius Cyprianus – Saint Cyprian – was destined to lead the Church in Carthage through a dark and terrible persecution. He accomplished all of his labors as bishop, martyr, and Church Father in the remaining twelve years of his life. Cyprian’s conversion is a striking example of the person-to-person evangelization of Late Antiquity. In his life, an encounter with Christ and the Church through a human friendship bore abundant fruit.
John Janaro is associate professor emeritus of theology at Christendom College, and author of Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy (Servant Books). He blogs at www.johnjanaro.com.