During the third century A.D., the Roman emperors repeatedly persecuted the Church. The Emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian ordered that all Christians must renounce the faith and offer pagan sacrifices. Registries of compliance were to be kept in all provinces. Recusants could be punished by forfeiture of property or death.
Human beings being human beings, a mad whirlwind of attempted scams ensued.
By the third century, the Empire was home to many well-to-do Christians. These did not relish the prospect of offending God. But neither did they want to be impoverished or executed.
So they paid their slaves to offer pagan sacrifices on their behalf. Or they bribed officials to produce false certificates, saying they had sacrificed, even though they really hadn’t. Or they lent their identification documents to a pagan, who would then offer sacrifices under the assumed name.
The Christians who employed these stratagems to save their hides came to be known as “the Lapsed.”
The persecutions of the third century came in fits and starts; they lasted for a time, but then the Church would enjoy a few years of peace. St. Cornelius was Pope, and St. Cyprian a prominent bishop, through a couple of these cycles.
During the intervals of peace, a question inevitably arose: Could the Lapsed be forgiven? They had failed to exercise the heroic faith and courage of the martyrs. But, at the same time, they had never stopped believing in the Trinity and in Christ.
Now, of course, neither Cornelius nor Cyprian ever lapsed. Both of them eventually went to their deaths as martyrs. But, before they themselves were killed, they had to deal with the question of what to do with the conniving Lapsed who wanted to go to communion.
Perhaps we might think that, since Cornelius and Cyprian proved to be heroic martyrs themselves, that they would have insisted on Christian heroism. But the opposite is the case. Both of them were roundly criticized by other bishops for being too lax.
Cornelius and Cyprian both taught: We believe in the forgiveness of sins. Let the Lapsed confess their sins, do penance, and be reconciled. The martyrs are our heroes. The Lapsed do not pretend to have been heroes. But they are our brothers nonetheless. Let’s gather around the altar together, so that we can all learn to be heroes next time.