St. Cyprian was born early in the 3rd century in North Africa, converted to Christianity as an adult, and was made bishop of Carthage in 248 or 249. As bishop he endured persecution and controversy but was eventually martyred in the year 258.
Cyprian’s thought helped the early Church develop its understanding of the sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation. Before Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, Christians caught up in waves of persecution encountered a terrible choice: declare their faith and face martyrdom, or renounce it and face expulsion from the Christian community. At first, renouncing Christianity was considered final – there was no way an apostate could be readmitted to the Church. However, with time, Cyprian and others began to argue that after a period of penance these sinners could be readmitted to the Church. This process of returning to the Church eventually evolved into the sacrament of reconciliation (also known as confession), and the understanding that contrite sinners can always return to the Church prevails today. Because of his leadership in time of crisis, his contributions to our understanding of the sacraments and the witness of his eventual martyrdom, Cyprian is recognized as a saint and we celebrate his feast day on September 16.