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Catholic Culture Overview

Fathers of the Church

Epistle XII: to the Clergy, Concerning the Lapsed and Catechumens, that They Should Not Be Left Without Superintendence


Cyprian argues in this epistle that it is a gravely wrong to give Holy Communion to the lapsed who have not yet confessed and performed due penance for their sin. He says that if their death is imminent, the lapsed may be admitted into communion with the faithful by a priest or deacon, but otherwise they ought to wait until the end of the persecution, when a council could be called to address this issue.


During the Decian persecution, five Carthaginian priests who opposed Cyprian from the beginning of his episcopate were admitting large numbers of Christians who had denied their faith back into communion. The confessors of Carthage had issued a general indulgence to allow any lapsed Christian whom they had examined and approved to return to communion with the Church. While Cyprian respected the judgment of the confessors, he did not want to place those lapsed Catholics on a higher level than those who had remained faithful, without giving them due penance. He wrote this epistle from his retreat during the persecution.

by Cyprian of Carthage in Circa 250 A.D. | translated by Unknown

[Argument.—The burden of this letter, as of the succeeding one, is found below in the XIVth Epistle. "But afterwards," he says, "when some of the lapsed, whether of their own accord, or by the suggestion of any other, broke forth with a daring demand, as though they would endeavour, by a violent effort, to extort the peace that had been promised to them by the martyrs and confessors," etc.]

1. Cyprian to the presbyters and deacons, his brethren, greeting. I marvel, beloved brethren, that you have answered nothing to me in reply to my many letters which I have frequently written to you, although as well the advantage as the need of our brotherhood would certainly be best provided for if, receiving information from you, I could accurately investigate and advise upon the management of affairs. Since, however, I see that there is not yet any Opportunity of coming to you, and that the summer has already begun—a season that is disturbed with continual and heavy sicknesses,—I think that our brethren must be dealt with;—that they who have received certificates from the martyrs, and may be assisted by their privilege with God, if they should be seized with any misfortune and peril of sickness, should, without waiting for my presence, before any presbyter who might be present, or if a presbyter should not be found and death begins to be imminent, before even a deacon, be able to make confession of their sin, that, with the imposition of hands upon them for repentance, they should come to the Lord with the peace which the martyrs have desired, by their letters to us, to be granted to them.

2. Cherish also by your presence the rest of the people who are lapsed, and cheer them by your consolation, that they may not fail of the faith and of God's mercy. For those shall not be forsaken by the aid and assistance of the Lord, who meekly, humbly, and with true penitence have persevered in good works; but the divine, remedy will be granted to them also. To the hearers also, if there are any overtaken by danger, and placed near to death, let your vigilance not be wanting; let not the mercy of the Lord be denied to those that are imploring the divine favour. I bid you, beloved brethren, ever heartily farewell; and remember me. Greet the whole brotherhood in my name, and remind them and ask them to be mindful of me. Fare ye well.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland beginning in 1867. (ANF 5, Roberts and Donaldson). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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