Today the church celebrates two early saints and martyrs, Cornelius, a pope who died in 253, and Cyprian, a bishop who was martyred in Roman Africa in 258.
At that time, the Roman emperors Decius and Valerian were demanding absolute loyalty from their people, as barbarian tribes in the west and the Persians in the east began invading Roman territory.
To prove their loyalty, Romans were expected to offer sacrifice in honor of the emperor. The Christians refused, so at first church leaders were executed or imprisoned, wealthy, influential Christians lost their property, their positions and possibly their lives– all Christians could expect punishment for not performing the rites of sacrifice.
The persecution was widespread. Cornelius was bishop of Rome, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage, an important Roman province. In the Roman persecution, many turned away from their faith; after it ended they wanted to return to the church they once knew. Hard liners called for them to be banned for life for their lack of loyalty. Let God judge them when they die, they said. Others, like Cornelius and Cyprian, called for welcoming them again, since God is all merciful.
Mercy and justice are always hard to reconcile. The Sunday gospels we just read seem to come down on the side of mercy. So should we