The 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!