Homily for September 16, Memorial of Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian (using the optional readings for the day)
The First Eucharistic Prayer, also known as the Roman Canon, has been in use without really significant changes for nearly fifteen hundred years. Parts of that prayer which have now become optional are somewhat extended lists of saints whose names we honor and whose prayers we invoke. Although we may recognize some of their names – particularly the Twelve Apostles – there are others whom we might no longer easily recognize, because they are martyrs of the early Church. Among them are Saints Cornelius and Cyprian, whose memorial we celebrate today.
St. Cornelius was the twenty-first pope. He exercised his papal ministry before Christianity was accepted by the Roman empire, so he was in constant danger of persecution and death. It was a terribly difficult time for Christians. It was also a very complicated time; another priest had set himself up as a rival pope, creating a schism in the Church. This anti-pope, by the name of Novatian, also supported the idea that those who had left the faith out of fear or coercion were not to be forgiven, even if they repented and asked to come back to the Church. St. Cornelius worked to restore unity to the Church until he was martyred by the Romans.
St. Cyprian was a bishop in Carthage, who helped Cornelius in his efforts to restore orthodoxy and unity in the Church. It is in part through his writings that we know the history of this time. He also followed the footsteps of St. Cornelius as a martyr, although his time came several years later.
These two men, like all the men and women martyrs mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer, lived the same faith as St. Paul describes in the first reading today. They put more value on living and preaching the faith than on their own mortal lives. Although their earthly lives were taken from them through hate and violence, the Lord’s promise in today’s Gospel holds true; they are not lost or destroyed. They enjoy the glory and happiness of heaven.
We are not likely to be martyrs, but it is still hard to be a faithful Christian today, and Christians are still divided. May Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian intercede for us today, to help us build the unity of all Christians, and to be true witnesses to our faith through thick and thin.