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Saint Cornelius

Saint Cornelius
  • Century: 3rd Century
  • Patronage: Repentant Sinners
  • Feast Day: September 16th

St. Cornelius was elected Pope in March of 251, and was martyred in June 253.  He played an important role as Pope in our early church.  To better understand it, the background is important.  

Emperor Decius ruled from 249-251.  He persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire locally, but in January of 250 he ordered all citizens to perform a religious sacrifice in the presence of the commissioners or face death.  Many Christians refused and were martyred, while others denounced Christianity to spare their lives.  There were two schools of thought after the persecution. Novatian, who was a priest in the diocese of Rome, believed that those who stopped practicing Christianity during the persecution could not be accepted back into the church even if they repented.  He thought the only way to re-enter the church would be re-baptism.  

The opposing side including St. Cornelius and Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage, did not believe in the need for re-baptism.  Instead they thought that the sinners should only need to show contrition and true repentance to be welcomed back into the church.  In hopes that Christianity would fade away, Decius prevented any election of a new pope.  Soon he was forced to leave the area to fight the Goths.  In the 14 months without a pope the leading candidate died in the persecution.  Novatian believed he would be elected, but as a shock to all – Cornelius was elected as the twenty-first Pope in March of 251.    

Novatian, a Roman priest declared that the Church could not pardon the lapsed Christians, and declared himself Pope – the first anti-pope.  Meanwhile, Pope Cornelius proclaimed that the Church had the authority and the power to forgive repentant lapsed Christians and could readmit them to the Sacraments and the Church after they had performed proper penances.  

In October 251, a Synod of Western Bishops in Rome upheld Cornelius and condemned the teachings of Novatian.  Novatian was excommunicated along with his followers.  When persecutions of the Christians started up again in 253, Cornelius was exiled to Centum Cellae, where he died a martyr.   

Practical Take Away

St. Cornelius was a Priest that strongly believed in the gift of confession.  In his time there were many Christians who denounced Christianity to Emperor Decius in order to be spared their lives.  The Church leaders of their time thought they could never be brought back into the church after such behavior.  But, St. Cornelius believed that with proper penance and forgiveness of their sins they could be fully united to the Church.  He was found to be right in his teachings, and his opposition was excommunicated.  His dedication to forgiveness and repentance paved the way for all of us sinners to be reconciled to God and to remain in Holy Mother Church.  We should all take advantage and good use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation that Holy Mother Church offers.