Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Who was Saint Pontius the Deacon?

St. Cyprian as portrayed by the excellent
Catholic artist, Cecilia Lawrence.
March 8 is the Catholic feast day of Saint Pontius the Deacon, companion of the great Saint Cyprian of Carthage. Pontius is most well known for writing a first-hand account of the martyrdom of Cyprian in AD 258. Saint Jerome calls Pontius out briefly in his work On Famous Men (Chapter 68) as follows:
Pontius, deacon of Cyprian, sharing his exile until the day of his death, left a notable volume on the life and death of Cyprian.
Little more is known about him, save what he himself says in his famous account of his shepherd and colleague. He apparently witnessed the execution of Cyprian with his own eyes, supplying several vivid details:
When [Cyprian] had come to the praetorium, as the proconsul had not yet come forth, a place of retirement was accorded him. There, as he sat moistened after his long journey with excessive of the officers (Tesserarius), who had formerly been a Christian, offered him his clothes, as if he might wish to change his moistened garments for drier ones.
Once the proconsul interrogated Cyprian and read the sentence, Pontius describes how the saint was led to the place of execution and had to encourage his unwilling executioner to perform his office:
And when he left the doors of the praetorium, a crowd of soldiery accompanied him; and that nothing might be wanting in his passion, centurions and tribunes guarded his side....And now, having with his own hands bound his eyes, he tried to hasten the slowness of the executioner, whose office was to wield the sword, and who with difficulty clasped the blade in his failing right hand with trembling fingers, until the mature hour of glorification strengthened the hand of the centurion with power granted from above to accomplish the death of the excellent man, and at length supplied him with the permitted strength. 
 At the end of the document, Pontius rejoices that Cyprian has been accounted worthy of the martyr's laurel, but laments that he himself had not, to that point, suffered for the sake of Christ:
What shall I do now? Between joy at his passion, and grief at still remaining, my mind is divided in different directions, and twofold affections are burdening a heart too limited for them. Shall I grieve that I was not his associate? But yet I must triumph in his victory. Shall I triumph at his victory? Still I grieve that I am not his companion. Yet still to you I must in simplicity confess, what you also are aware of, that it was my intention to be his companion. Much and excessively I exult at his glory; but still more do I grieve that I remained behind.
Read Saint Pontius's Life and Passion of Saint Cyprian, along with all of Saint Cyprian's voluminous writings in The Complete Works of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, which may be ordered in book form here or here.

This edition has the virtue of including footnotes and commentary that are more Catholic-friendly than previous editions done by 19th century Protestant scholars. It also includes one of my favorite features: The Quotable Cyprian.

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