St. Cornelius - Embroiled In Persecution

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Byzantine icon of St. Cornelius.Decius is reported to have said that he would prefer to have a rival emperor rather than a bishop in Rome. As long as such an emperor was in full career, it was impossible for the Christians to elect a new pope. But after over a year the Emperor was distracted by rebels, the persecution slackened, and the Christians were able to elect a new pope. Cornelius, their choice, was a Roman, a man of strong mind and strong character. He was to need both.

The winds of persecution had ceased to blow, but they left the bark of Peter tossing in the swells. The persecution had been too much for many Christians. Many had weakly denied Christ. Some had actually sacrificed to idols. Others had bribed officials to say that they had. Now that peace was restored, these poor weaklings came from all corners to try to get back into the Church. The Pope had to face the double challenge of laxism which too easily passed over the grievous offense and rigorism which repulsed the poor people.

At first the laxists had to be checked. Many confessors, that is, those who had confessed Christ before a heathen judge, took it upon themselves to give the repentant apostates certificates entitling the holder to restoration to communion. This degenerated into a regular traffic, and when St. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, tried to stop it, a certain Novatus set up a dupe of his named Felicissimus as antibishop and went off to Rome to get the Pope's support. Comelius, however, was not deceived. He condemned the schism and the laxist practices. The repentant apostates might indeed return to communion but only after due penance.

This moderate regulation provoked the rigorists, and a man named Novatian came to Rome and set himself up as antipope. He accused Comelius of having bribed an official to say that he had denied Christ. No wonder Cornelius wrote bitterly about Novatian in a letter to Bishop Fabius of Antioch. St. Cyprian loyally backed the Pope. At this time he wrote the classical treatise, "On the Unity of the Church."

Novatian the rigorist, oddly enough, joined hands with Novatus the laxist. The movement they started spread into the East. It absorbed many of the old Montanists. These people called themselves Cathari (Puritans).

The persecution once more flared up when a plague set the fanatical populace to demanding death for the Christians. Emperor Trebonianus Gallus yielded to the demand. This time the Christians were better prepared and the shocking wave of apostasy which had marked the Decian persecution was not repeated. Pope Cornelius kept his Romans in high morale. He was exiled to Centum Cellae, the modern Civita Vecchia, and was martyred there in 253. He was buried in the Cemetery of Calixtus. The feast of St. Comelius, together with that of his friend St. Cyprian, is kept on September 16.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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