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#21 - Pope St. Cornelius

Friday, October 18, 2019

Pope from 251-253 A.D.
Died: 253 A.D.
Pronounced cor-NEEL-ee-uss

How do we know he was pope?
The Liber Pontificalis lists Cornelius as the successor of St. Fabian. His reign is also validated by writings that still exist from St. Cyprian of Carthage (a bishop during Cornelius’ papacy) and Eusebius, writing on Church history in the early 4th century.

Give me the scoop on Cornelius.
Facing one of the more intense persecutions it had seen up to that point, the Church endured more than a year in sede vacante ("empty chair") mode after the martyrdom of St. Fabian. Emperor Decius’ ridiculous obsession with snuffing out the Church prevented a new pope from being elected in that time, apparently even saying he’d prefer a rival emperor to a new Bishop of Rome. Forgetting to be careful what he wished for, Decius was drawn away from Rome to handle...you guessed it...a rival emperor in March 251, clearing a path for Cornelius' call.

Cornelius was one of those, “May God forgive you for what you’ve done” pontiffs, having been elected to the chair of Peter against his will. Interestingly enough, guys like that seem to make the best popes, since it was thanks to Cornelius that many thousands of believers were allowed back into the Church after Decius’ persecution was over (more on that in a minute). He died in exile in 253 after being arrested and sent away by the emperor early in 252.

What was he known for?
Cornelius was forced to flex his doctrinal muscles when Novatian, a popular Roman priest who resented not being elected pope, became more than just a thorn in his side. The end of Decius’ persecution, as we mentioned, brought multitudes of believers back to the Church asking for reconciliation for renouncing their faith. Novatian was of the, “you had your chance, buddy” mindset while Cornelius carried the more orthodox, “Jesus wouldn’t think that” viewpoint.

After gaining vital support from bishops in Africa (thanks to his friend, St. Cyprian of Carthage) and from St. Dionysius the Great and the Eastern Church, Cornelius was able to unite the Church against Novatian’s heretical beliefs. Unfortunately, Novatian then declared himself “antipope” and broke away with his own followers.

Fun fact: A synod convened by Cornelius to handle Novatian’s situation resulted in the pope sending a letter out to all the bishops of the Church. It’s from this letter that we know the size of the Church at that time - there were 46 Roman priests, seven deacons, seven subdeacons, 42 acolytes, 52 exorcists, readers, and doorkeepers, and over 1500 widows and poor people supported by the Church. Also, the requirement that every diocese have an exorcist on hand stems from this very letter, a tradition that’s over 1700 years old!

What else was going on in the world at the time?
The Roman empire was, as mentioned above, changing hands. Decius was succeeded in 251, both by his young son, Hostilian, and by Gallus, who was picked by the troops. The two reigned as co-emperors for a short time, until Hostilian succumbed to a sudden plague that hit the city of Rome, leaving Gallus alone at the top.
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