The Church (and St. Cornelius) vs. The Novatianists, Round 1! Fight!

StCorneliusThe next saint on our list is Pope St. Cornelius. He was born of a middle class family and was given a poor education, but rose to be an incredibly influential priest of Rome. (Strangely, his name means “battle horn”, and he is usually pictured holding a bull’s horn or with a cow close by. Crazy!) As he was carrying out his ministry, the persecutions under the Emperor Decius were so fierce that there was a 14 month gap after the martyrdom of Pope Fabian, Cornelius’ predecessor. It was only in March of 251 when enough clergy could be gathered to have an election for the new pope!

The main issue that Cornelius had to deal with was what to do with those who had apostatized, an issue we mentioned last week with Pope Sixtus II. Apostasy is the formal and public abandonment of the faith. This might not seem to happen too much, but it had become a real problem in this time period. Emperor Decius had decreed that anyone accused of being a Christian would be placed before a commissioner and required to offer a sacrifice of burnt incense before the Roman gods and the Emperor. Compared to torture and death, a little pinch of incense might not seem so bad, but beneath it all, it was a fundamental choice against God and toward the worship of idols – a.k.a, apostasy.

So what do we do with these apostates? That was the question. In those times, confession happened only once in a lifetime, so between baptism and confession, you pretty much had two chances to get things right. Some confessors at the time weren’t really counting sins of apostasy as that big a deal, and told their penitents that they were merely victims of circumstances. On the other hand, rigorists led by the Roman priest Novatian declared that these lapsed Christians could never be forgiven. Oh yeah…then he declared himself pope. Pope St. Cornelius declared that while apostasy was a serious sin (yep!), it could be forgiven (hooray!), with the sacraments and appropriate penance.

All this theorizing was put to the test again in the year 252, when Decius was killed in battle and Gallus became emperor. The persecutions roared back to life. Cornelius was put to the test, and as an example of courage to those who might consider apostatizing, he proclaimed the truth of his faith boldly, and earned exile to what is now Civitavecchia, Italy. Ultimately, Cornelius died in 253, under the hardships of exile, but the Church considers him a martyr. After things calmed down in Rome, his body was brought back and laid in the catacombs. Incidentally, the inscription on his tomb was the earliest known papal tomb to have been inscribed in Latin.

Once again, a brave example of faith. Tune in next week to hear about St. Cornelius’ dear friend, St. Cyprian of Carthage!

St. Sixtus the Second, Staunch Servant of the Sacrosanct Sacraments

Pope St. Sixtus II
Pope St. Sixtus II

See what I did there?

The next saint as we work through our list in the Roman Canon is St. Sixtus. Now there’s some uncertainty as to which “Sixtus” this is, because there’s a bunch of them (There are, thankfully, only five. I guess everybody thought “Sixtus the Sixth” would sound weird.)!

One opinion is that the name in the Eucharistic Prayer refers to Pope St. Sixtus I, who was the 7th pope of the Church, and ruled from 115 to 124 under the persecution of the Emperor Hadrian. He is credited with adding the “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the Mass, along with a few other liturgical practices.

However, most of the commentaries say that the name refers to Pope St. Sixtus II, who ruled from 257 to 258 under Emperor Valerian. He’s a little out of chronological order (the next saint, Cornelius, is a few years before), but his importance to Rome and his example give him pride of place here.

He was known as a great pastoral pope, having repaired a rift in the Church between the understanding of baptism in the Churches of Carthage and Rome. Pope Sixtus believed, as we do today, that baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Baptism bestows on our hearts a seal that can never be removed, no matter how severe our sins, and we can’t be “rebaptized”. The Church in Carthage believed the opposite, and Sixtus worked with them to repair the rift between them and restore unity to the Church.

When Pope Sixtus II took over as Bishop of Rome in 257, Christianity was still illegal throughout the Roman Empire, but it was somewhat tolerated, and the penalty was exile rather than death. But the following year, the Emperor Valerian ordered the execution of Christian leaders and worshipping Christians. Sixtus was among the first to be executed in this new wave of persecutions, along with 6 of his deacons. The pope was hiding from the persecution in the catacombs, and one day, while celebrating Mass in secret, a group of soldiers broke into the area where he and his deacons were to arrest and execute them on the spot. Sixtus bravely volunteered himself to be beheaded first, saving the worshipping lay faithful and inspiring courage in his fellow martyrs.

The martyrs were secretly buried in the catacombs in Rome, and Sixtus was laid to rest among the tombs of many other popes from the 1st and 2nd centuries. In the mid-1800’s, an engraved plaque detailing his martyrdom was discovered in the abandoned catacombs. Centuries before, the remains of St. Sixtus II had been moved to the church of San Sisto Vecchio, named in his honor. The relics remain in the rebuilt church today.

St. Sixtus is just one example among many of the courage and selflessness of the early martyrs as they faced persecution. But stay tuned, because there are many more courageous martyrs to come!