St. Cyprian, "the first African bishop to achieve the crown of martyrdom," was the subject of Benedict XVI's catechesis during his general audience, held this morning in St. Peter's Square in the presence of 40,000 people.
Cyprian, said the Pope, "was born in Carthage to a rich pagan family" and "converted to Christianity at the age of 35. ... He became a priest and later a bishop. In the brief period of his episcopate, he had to face the first two persecutions authorized by imperial edict, that of Decius (250) and that of Valerian (257-258)," following which many faithful "renounced their faith, or at least failed to comport themselves correctly when under trial. These were the so-called 'lapsi,' that is, the 'lapsed'."
Cyprian was "severe but not inflexible towards the 'lapsi,' giving them the chance of forgiveness after an exemplary penance." The saint also "showed great humanity and was pervaded by the most authentic evangelical spirit in exhorting Christians to offer fraternal help to pagans during the plague." But he was "irremovable in combating the corruption and sins that devastated the moral life, especially that of avarice."
"Cyprian wrote many treatises and letters, all of them associated with his pastoral ministry. Little given to theological speculations, he wrote above all for the edification of the community and to encourage the faithful to good behavior."
In the saint's works, the Holy Father explained, "the Church is by far the topic most dear to him. He distinguishes between the visible hierarchical Church and the invisible mystical Church, at the same time forcefully affirming that the Church is one, founded upon Peter. He never tires of repeating that 'whoever abandons the chair of Peter, upon which the Church is founded, deludes himself if he believes he remains in the Church'."
Hence, "the indispensable characteristic of the Church is unity, as symbolized by the seamless robe of Christ; a unity that finds its foundation in Peter and its perfect realization in the Eucharist," said the Holy Father. He then referred to Cyprian's teaching on prayer "which highlights how in the Our Father Christians are shown the correct way to pray." That prayer refers to "us" and "our" rather than to "me" and "mine," said the Pope, "so that he who prays does not pray only for himself. Ours is a public and community prayer. ... The Christian does not say 'my Father,' but 'our Father,' even when praying in the privacy of a closed room, because he knows that everywhere and in all circumstances, he is a member of the one Body."
"Cyprian, then, lies at the origins of that fruitful theological-spiritual tradition that sees the heart as the privileged place of prayer. ... It is there that God meets and talks to man, ... and man listens to God."
"Let us make our own that 'understanding heart' about which the Bible and the Fathers speak," the Pope concluded. "We have such great need of it."
The Holy Father also spoke about the G-8 summit, which began today.
At the end of today's general audience, celebrated in St. Peter's Square, the Pope made an appeal to heads of State and government of the G8 countries - the seven most industrialized countries in the world plus the Russian Federation - who are holding their annual summit meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany from June 6 to 8.
The Pope recalled how on December 16, 2006 he had written to Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, at the beginning of the German presidency of the European Union, "thanking her, in the name of the Catholic Church, for the decision to keep the theme of world poverty on the agenda of the G8, with specific reference to Africa. Chancellor Merkel kindly replied to me on 2 February last, assuring me of the G8's commitment to attaining the Millennium Development Goals.
"Now," he added, "I should like to make a further appeal to the leaders meeting at Heiligendamm, not to retreat from their promises to make a substantial increase in development aid in favor of the most needy populations, especially those of the African continent.
"In this regard, the second Millennium Goal merits special attention: 'to achieve universal primary education - to ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling by 2015.' This is an integral part of the attainment of all the other Millennium Goals: it is a guarantee of the consolidation of goals already reached; it is the starting-point for autonomous and sustainable processes of development.
"It must not be forgotten that the Catholic Church has always been at the forefront in the field of education, reaching places, particularly in the poorest countries, that State structures often fail to reach. Other Christian Churches, religious groups and organizations of civil society share this educational commitment. According to the principle of subsidiarity, this reality should be recognized, valued and supported by governments and international organizations, among other things by the allocation of sufficient funding, so that greater efficacy may be guaranteed in the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals. Let us hope," he concluded, "that serious efforts be made to reach these objectives."