January in the year 250 was not a safe time for Christians. The Emperor Decius, whose harassment of those who followed Christ had been sporadic at first, suddenly began zealously carrying out persecution. He ordered all Christians, beginning with the hierarchs, to offer incense to the Roman gods or be put to death immediately. Pope Fabian was one of the first to suffer that consequence, receiving the crown of martyrdom when he refused to deny Christ by recognizing the divinity of pagan gods.
The fear and chaos which now surrounded the lives of the Christians, particularly in the capital city, meant that a gathering for the purpose of electing a successor to Pope Fabian was not possible. In the 16-month period when there was no Western Patriarch, some Christians followed their bishop to martyrdom; some apostatized and made the sacrifice in order to save their own lives; and others bought certificates which falsely verified their sacrifice.
When Decius had to abandon his rage toward the Christians in order to take to the battlefield against the Goths, the Christians of Rome could finally elect a new Pope and the priest Cornelius was the obvious choice. He had been serving the Church in Rome through all the ranks of the ordained – from subdeacon, to deacon, and then priest – and had carried on with much of the work of the diocese since the death of the pope.
Now there was much concern over what to do about those who had apostatized during the persecutions. The new Pope held that those who in weakness had denied Christ should, like Peter, be forgiven and returned to communion if they were truly repentant and had served a period of penance. Pope Cornelius had an articulate ally in this in the person of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. The two bishops corresponded with each other, sharing their concerns for mercy at a difficult time for Christians.
But another person emerged with very different views. Novatian had been a Stoic philosopher who had delayed baptism until he nearly dyed from an illness. He survived the illness and, despite some irregularities in his “emergency” baptism, he had been ordained priest sometime later. During the persecution, he had stayed in his house and refused to be of assistance to other Christians. Now, however, Novatian suddenly reappeared in public expressing an extremely rigid attitude regarding those who had lapsed. He insisted that only by re-baptism could they be admitted back into the Church and later went so far as to say that the Church did not even have the power to pronounce forgiveness of sins, refuting the words of Christ as expressed in holy Scripture [John 20:22].
Seeking power for himself and company in his schismatic and heretical ideas, Novatian managed to convince three bishops to consecrate him as Pope instead of Cornelius. The devil had found an able helper in his desire to harm the Church!
St. Cornelius had to convene a synod to confirm the already established canons regarding penance and readmission of the lapsed. This synod excommunicated Novatian and his followers, who went on to form their own sect. Meanwhile, the Emperor Decius was defeated by the Goths and was betrayed by his general, Gallus, who succeeded him as emperor.
Christians may well have hoped that things would be different now, but it was not to be. At first, Gallus did not choose to continue the persecution, but when a plague broke out shortly after his accession, superstition caused him to return to the policies of his predecessor. Pope Cornelius was sent into exile, where he died on September 14, 252, receiving the title “martyr” because of his sufferings, although there are some reports that he was beheaded. Cornelius’ relics were buried in Rome in the crypt of Lucina and a wall painting of him was added there in the eighth century. His correspondent and supporter, St. Cyprian, was also exiled and died a martyr’s death on September 14 six years later in the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian. Because of the celebration of the Elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14, the Church has moved their place on the liturgical calendar to September 16. Both saints are named in the canon of the Mass.
The Church historian, Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea 314-339), has provided much of the factual information we have about Pope Cornelius and his time. Writing about the decision of Emperor Gallus to resume the persecutions, he says,
Nor did Gallus realize Decius’ mistake or guard against what caused his fall, but tripped over the same stone with his eyes open. When his reign was proceeding smoothly and things were going to his liking, he drove away the holy men who were praying God to grant him peace and health. In banishing them, he banished their supplications on his behalf.
We have also learned much about the church in Rome from Eusebius. He tells us that there were, at the time of Pope Cornelius, forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty-two exorcists, readers, and doorkeepers, and more than fifteen hundred widows and distressed persons. This information, along with the mention of correspondence among bishops in Rome, Africa, Antioch, and other parts of the world gives evidence of an amazingly vibrant Church – actively carrying out all of our Lord’s commandments: teaching, preaching, baptizing, helping the poor – all in the midst of fierce persecution.
Christians are once again experiencing persecution in many forms – from the inconvenience of ridicule to violent death. May we be moved to imitate the example of the Christians of Rome in devotion to our Christian duty and perseverance in the face of persecution. May we, like St. Cornelius, offer to others the same mercy and forgiveness that God offers us. May we take heart in hearing of the courage and strong faith of St. Cornelius and may we ask that he intercede for us in Heaven.
References: Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martryes and Other Principal Saints; Eusebius, The History of the Church; David H. Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.