Pope Cornelius

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Pope Saint Cornelius was pope from his election on 6 or 13 March 251 to his martyrdom in June 253.


Christian persecution

Emperor Decius, who ruled from 249 to 251 AD, persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire rather sporadically and locally, but starting January in the year 250, he ordered all citizens to perform a religious sacrifice in the presence of commissioners, or else face death.[1] Many Christians refused and were martyred, including the pope, St Fabian, on January 20, while others partook in the sacrifices in order to save their own lives.[2] Two schools of thought arose after the persecution. One side, led by Novatian who was a priest in the diocese of Rome, believed that those who had stopped practicing Christianity during the persecution could not be accepted back into the church even if they repented.[3] Under this philosophy, the only way to reenter the church would be rebaptism. The opposing side, including Cornelius and Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage, did not believe in the need for rebaptism. Instead they thought that the sinners should only need to show contrition and true repentance to be welcomed back into the church.[3] In hopes that Christianity would fade away, Decius prevented the election of a new pope. However, soon afterwards Decius was forced to leave the area to fight the invading Goths and while he was away the elections for pope were held.[2] In the 14 months without a pope, the leading candidate, Moses, had died under the persecution. Novatian believed that he would be elected, however Cornelius was unwillingly elected the twenty-first pope in March 251.[3]


Novatian was very angry not only that he was not elected pope, but that someone who did not believe in rebaptism was. He thus proclaimed himself the antipope (rival) to Cornelius, driving a schism through the church. After Cornelius’s appointment to the papacy, Novatian became a larger rigorist in his philosophy, convinced that bishops could not pardon the worst of sins, and that such sins could only be reconciled at the Last Judgment.[4] Cornelius had the support of St. Cyprian, St. Dionysius, and most African and Eastern bishops while Novatian had the support of a minority of clergy and laymen in Rome who did not acknowledge Cornelius as pope.[3] Cornelius’s next action was to convene a synod of 60 bishops to restate himself as the rightful pope and the council excommunicated Novatian as well as all Novatianists. Also addressed in the synod was that Christians who stopped practicing during Emperor Decius’s persecution could receive communion once more after penance.[3][4]

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