In the middle of the third century, the Church was still being persecuted. The fierce persecution of the Emperor Decius claimed the life of Pope St. Fabian, and the Church was without a pope for nearly a year when Cornelius was elected in 251.
Bishop Cyprian of Carthage in Africa greatly encouraged Pope Cornelius by reminding him that during the present persecution in Rome not a single Christian had given up the faith. St. Cyprian’s writings explain the love that Christians should have for the Church.
Pope Cornelius died in exile in September 253, and because he suffered so much as pope, he is considered a martyr. St. Cyprian died five years later; he was beheaded at Carthage on September 14, 258. Together they share a feast day to remind us of the unity of the Church.
On this their feast let us ask these two martyrs to help us grow in our love for the Church.
Writing from the city of Ephesus around the year 51, Saint Paul testified that because of the resurrection of Christ, his faith isn’t useless. 1,957 years later, a friend told me: “I’ll never forget the day when I knew Jesus was alive. It changed me forever.”
Here we have two witnesses, separated by a huge expanse of time, place, and circumstance, and they testify to the very same experience: an experience shared by billions of others over the past 2000 years. None of these people had ever met Jesus in the flesh, and yet they all spoke of his power and presence with such confidence that those who listened couldn’t help but be moved.
Part of our Christian vocation is to evangelize, but it’s important to know also that evangelization is far more than stating some historical facts about Jesus Christ. At its heart, evangelization is testifying to a life-changing encounter with the risen Lord and inviting others to the same experience. As we keep our hearts open to Jesus through prayer, the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the teaching of the Church, we submit our lives to him and we allow him to transform us, so that we too can be moved to witness in a very powerful way. Our witness can be every bit as effective as St. Paul’s and my friend’s. It can bring others to question their priorities and look to Jesus, asking if they can come to know him just as intimately.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who was, in my mind, one of the greatest evangelists of our time, defined evangelism this way: “That you have Jesus in your heart and then carry him to the hearts of others.” In much the same way Blessed Pope Paul VI taught that this kind of witnessing is at the very heart of the Church. He wrote: “It is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the Kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn”. Everyone who accepts Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is changed from the inside out—and that change can’t help but overflow into a life of witnessing and preaching.