St. Cornelius, Pope and Martyr
c. Late Second, or Early Third, Century – 253

September 16 – Memorial
Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of cattle, domestic animals, and earache sufferers

A Pope reigns for two years, excommunicates a schismatic, and dies in exile

The twenty-first pope of the Church, Saint Cornelius, succeeded no one. After the death of Pope Saint Fabian, martyred in January 250, persecutions prohibited the clergy of Rome from electing a successor, so the Chair of Saint Peter was vacant for over a year. Finally, when the cruel Emperor Decius departed Rome on military campaign, the clergy chose Cornelius as Bishop of Rome. Not everyone was happy with the choice, especially the former future pope Novatian, who had led the Roman clergy during the vacancy and had convinced himself that he was going to be elected. Novatian’s supporters consecrated him bishop and refused to acknowledge Cornelius. Sides were taken, letters were written, and tensions heightened. After consolidating support from the esteemed Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and others, Cornelius resolved the dispute by convening a synod of bishops which excommunicated the schismatic Novatian and his followers.

Pope Cornelius reigned for a little over two years, from March 251 to June 253. Even though his time in office was brief, he made some important decisions and left an interesting legacy. Decius’ persecution gave rise to the greatest pastoral dilemma of the third century—how, and whether, to reintegrate Christians who had offered pagan sacrifice, regretted it, and desired to enter again into the embrace of Mother Church. The related question of whether bishops, priests, and deacons who had apostosized could perform valid sacraments would vex Cornelius’s successors. There were two camps on this issue. Novatian held that lapsed Christians were idolaters, and idolatry was, in the Old Testament especially, unforgivable. The Church could not absolve such apostates. They were to be judged by God alone at death. Cornelius, Saint Cyprian, and other bishops occupied a more moderate position. They taught that the lapsi could be reintegrated into the Church through repentance and an appropriate penance. Cornelius’ position won the day, forever and always, establishing an important theological precedent: There is no sin that cannot be forgiven.

Pope Cornelius also left, in his letters, an important record of the size, state, and organization of the Church of Rome, hard facts so obvious to those inside of a culture that they often go unreported in historical documents. Decius’ successor as Emperor was named Gallus, and he was no friend of Christians either. He banished Cornelius to a city not far from Rome where the Pope died of physical hardship. Saint Cornelius was buried near the papal crypt in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus. One day in 1849, an amateur archeologist, a layman who worked in the Vatican library, found a small marble shard that read NELIUS MARTYR in a field on the outskirts of Rome. But there was no martyr named Nelius. He then found another shard that read COR. The inscription is still visible today in the Catacombs of Callixtus: Cornelius Martyr. 

The Romans unsheathed their long knives in the 250s. Pope after pope was martyred by various means. But the Church did not run and hide, it stayed and grew. The blood of Cornelius and other pope-martyrs wet the soil, and the seeds of faith moistened, grew, and sprouted into the vast garden of Catholicism that slowly, and imperceptibly, took deep root in the ground of Europe. Saint Cornelius’ name is read at Mass in Eucharistic Prayer I even today, next to Saint Cyprian’s. He was staunch in his defense of the Church, yet appropriately lenient to his fellow Christians who did not possess his same fortitude. In this respect, he was as wise a pastor as he was brave a martyr.

Saint Cornelius, our Lord said that it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world if he would lose his own soul. You gained the papacy, not the whole world, yet gave it up rather than bend to the will of the Church’s enemies. Help us to persevere like you.

St. Cyprian, Bishop, Martyr

September 16—Memorial
Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of Algeria and North Africa 

The faithful soak up the blood of their beheaded bishop 

The elegantly named Thaschus Caecilius Cyprianus was born in an uncertain year in that buzzing beehive of early Christianity known as Roman North Africa. His biography epitomizes that of many greats of his era: a classically educated Roman citizen of renown finds Christ as an adult, leaves behind his exalted civic status, trades Empire for Church, and places his gifts and reputation at the service of the people as a bishop of consequence. But because he lived in times of hot persecution, Cyprian’s life did not come to a peaceful end like others with similar biographies, such as Saints Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, or Paulinus of Nola. The mighty Bishop Cyprian was sentenced to death by a local bureaucrat. On the fateful day, he knelt in the burning sand and waited for the heavy Roman sword to lop off his head. Cyprian’s cult of martyrdom sprang up instantly, even as the faithful, carrying white cloths, soaked up the holy blood that poured from his torso. His name was soon placed in the Roman Canon, where it remains today, spoken from the altar and heard by the faithful at Mass in Eucharistic Prayer I.

Cyprian was a big-hearted, well-educated “man about town” when, in his mid-forties, he was converted by the example and words of an old priest. He redirected his life, made a vow of chastity which astonished his friends, and even abstained from his greatest pleasure—the works of pagan authors. In all of Cyprian’s Christian writings, there is not one single citation of these pagans whose style and thought Cyprian had so admired. Once converted, Cyprian’s mind focused on Scripture and the growing canon of Christian theology, mostly that of his fellow North African Tertullian. Soon after his baptism, Cyprian was ordained a priest, and in 248, after first resisting the appointment, he was made the bishop of his home city of Carthage. His impressive bearing and refined education earned him deep respect among the faithful.

Under the persecution of the Emperor Decius (249–252), which so marked the life of the third-century Church, many Christians lined up at the offices of their local Roman official to offer token worship to pagan gods and to receive a libellus, or small sheet, documenting their apostasy.  Cyprian lost all his possessions in this persecution but avoided capture by going into hiding. He governed his diocese remotely through letters and was compelled to defend his flight against criticism levelled by bishops in both Rome and North Africa that he was avoiding martyrdom. Once the tide of persecution subsided, Cyprian returned to Carthage and was lenient but clear, like his contemporary Pope Cornelius, in reintegrating the lapsi back into the Church once they had performed a suitable penance.

The roiling debate over how to pastorally respond to the lapsi divided the Church in North Africa, with some priests arguing no forgiveness was possible for idolaters, and others demanding that the lapsi perform onerous penances before they were received again into the fold. Cyprian responded to these divisions by writing a treatise on Church unity, arguing that the pope’s teaching on this matter must be obeyed: “There is one God, one Christ, and but one episcopal chair, originally founded on Peter, by the Lord’s authority. There cannot be set up another altar or another priesthood.” Cyprian later clashed with Pope Stephen I over the validity of the sacraments performed by priests who had apostatized, a matter resolved after both mens’ death in favor of the Roman position of leniency.

Cyprian’s fellow North African, Saint Augustine of Hippo, in Book Five of his Confessions, recounts how his mother, Monica, prayed in a shrine dedicated to Saint Cyprian in the port city of Carthage around 375 A.D. So, approximately one hundred and twenty years after Cyprian’s death, his legacy was firmly established, fresh and alive, as it still is today.

Saint Cyprian, you served the unity of the Church as a bishop, understood the beauty and necessity of the sacraments, and accepted death over apostasy. Inspire all bishops to be magnets, drawing the faithful toward Christ and the Church through their teaching and witness.