Saint Cornelius, Bishop and Martyr

September 16

Today is the feast day of Saint Cornelius.  Ora pro nobis.

Pope Saint Cornelius ascended to the Chair of Peter following a fourteen year absence of papal authority (during which time the Church was governed by a committee of bishops) during the harsh persecution of Christians by Emperor Decius. To ascend to the papacy at that time was almost a certain death sentence, but Cornelius, although reluctant, obediently accepted his calling. Like so many before him, his efforts to unite the Church, welcoming back the many strayed souls through penance, allowed the faith to grow despite inhospitable conditions.

St. Cornelius was, by birth, of the highest nobility. The elevation of a descendant of the Scipios to the Soveriegn Pontificate linked the past grandeurs of Rome to her future greatness. Decius, who “would more easily have suffered a competitor in his empire than a Bishop in Rome,” had just issued the edict for the seventh general persecution of Chrisitans. But the Caesar bestowed upon the world’s capital by a village of Pannonia, could not stay the destinies of the eternal city. Beside the bloodthirsty emperor, and others like him, whose fathers were known in the city only as slaves or conquered enemies, the true Roman, the descendant of the Cornelii, might be recognized by his native simplicity, by the calmness of his strength of soul, by the intrepid firmness belonging to his race, wherewith he first triumphed over the usurper, who was soon to surrender to the Goths on the borders of the Danube. And yet, O holy Pontiff, thou art even greater by the humility which St. Cyprian, thy illustrious friend, admired in thee, and by that “purity of thy virginal soul,” through which, according to him, thou didst become the elect of God and of His Christ.

St. Cornelius was Sovereign Pontiff during the reign of the emperors Gallus and Volusianus. Together with a holy lady named Lucina, he translated the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul from the catacombs to a more honorable resting place. St. Paul’s body was entombed by Lucina on an estate of hers on the Ostian Way, close to the spot where he had been beheaded; while St. Cornelius laid the body of the Prince of the Apostles near the place of his crucifixion. When this became known to the emperors, and they were moreover informed that, by the advice of the Pope, many became Christians, St. Cornelius was exiled to Centumcellae, where St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote to him to console him.

The frequency of this Christian and charitable communication between the two Saints gave great displeasure to the emperors; and accordingly, St. Cornelius was summoned to Rome, where, as if guilty of treason, he was beaten with scourges tipped with lead. He was next dragged before an image of Mars, and commanded to sacrifice; but indignantly refusing to commit such an act of infidelity, he was beheaded on the 14th of September. The blessed Lucina, aided by some clerics, buried his body in a sandpit on her estate, near to the cemetery of Callixtus. His Pontificate lasted about two years.

The Breviary lessons omit much of the details of St. Cornelius’ reign. Perhaps his greatest achievement as Pope was his steadfast resistance of the schism brought about by the anti-pope Novatian. This proud rigorist taught that Christians who had apostatized during the persecutions could not be absolved. Disappointed that he himself was not elected Pope, he declared the election of St. Cornelius illegitimate, and set himself up as anti-pope. Due to the zeal and diligence of Pope St. Cornelius, together with his friend St. Cyprian, the heresy and schism were not widespread, though they continued in places for several hundred years. Letters written during the schism provide historians with clear proofs of the recognition of Papal Primacy. Both the true Pope, St. Cornelius, and the anti-pope, Novatian, claimed the right to remove rebellious bishops from their sees and appoint replacements. (1)

During his papacy, Cornelius was assisted and supported by Saint Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage. Below, one of the letters sent to Pope Saint Cornelius by Saint Cyprian:

Cyprian to his brother Cornelius.

My very dear brother, we have heard of the glorious witness given by your courageous faith. On learning of the honor you had won by your witness, we were filled with such joy that we felt ourselves sharers and companions in your praiseworthy achievements. After all, we have the same Church, the same mind, the same unbroken harmony. Why then should a priest not take pride in the praise given to a fellow priest as though it were given to him? What brotherhood fails to rejoice in the happiness of its brothers wherever they are?

Words cannot express how great was the exultation and delight here when we heard of your good fortune and brave deeds: how you stood out as leader of your brothers in their declaration of faith, while the leader’s confession was enhanced as they declared their faith. You led the way to glory, but you gained many companions in that glory; being foremost in your readiness to bear witness on behalf of all, you prevailed on your people to become a single witness. We cannot decode which we ought to praise, your own ready and unshaken faith or the love of your brothers who would not leave you. While the courage of the bishop who thus led the way has been demonstrated, at the same time the unity of the brotherhood who followed has been manifested. Since you have one heart and one voice, it is the Roman Church as a whole that has thus born witness.

Dearest brother bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle praised in your community. He foresaw in the spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that could not be broken; he was heralding the future when he testified to your achievements; his praise of the fathers was a challenge to the sons. Your unity, your strength have become shining examples of these virtues to the rest of the brethren. Divine providence has now prepared us. God’s merciful design has warned us that the day of our own struggle, our own contest, is at hand. By that shared love which binds us close together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils and prayers in common. These are the heavenly weapons which give us the strength to stand firm and endure; they are the spiritual defenses, the God-given armaments that protect us.

Let us then remember one another, united in mind and heart. Let us pray without ceasing, you for us, we for you; by the love we share we shall thus relieve the strain of these great trials. (1)

Image: Heiliger Cornelius als Papst und Märtyrer, artist: Meister von Meßkirch, circa 1535/40 (3)

Research by REGINA Staff


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