Cornelius, Pope, St.
CORNELIUS, POPE, ST.
Pontificate: March 6 or 13, 251 to June 253. Cornelius, apparently a member of the distinguished Roman gens Cornelia, was elected pope (probably in March 251) when the Emperor Decius left Rome to repel the Goths. On the death of Fabian (250), it had been impossible to proceed at once to the election of a new bishop of Rome because of the Decian persecution. During the interval, the Roman Church was governed by a college of priests that included novatian. Abandoning his attitude of cautious reserve on the election of Cornelius, Novatian threw in his lot with the rigorist party and had himself consecrated rival bishop of Rome. His attempt to win over other bishops to his cause met with only partial success, thanks largely to the vigorous action of cyprian of car thage and of Cornelius. In October 251 the pope held a large synod at Rome, attended by 60 bishops and many priests and deacons. It excommunicated Novatian and his supporters and approved the decisions of a Carthaginian synod, ordering the restoration of the lapsi "with the medicines of repentance." The decisions of the Roman synod, together with a letter from Cyprian approving the condemnation of the Novatianists and the measures affecting the lapsi, were communicated by Cornelius to Fabius, Bishop of Antioch. Relations between Cornelius and Cyprian became strained (252) when Fortunatus, a rival of Cyprian, endeavored to poison the pope's mind concerning the African bishop, but Cyprian managed to regain the pope's confidence.
The letter of Cornelius to Fabius is historically interesting for the light it throws on the organization of the Roman Church at this time. According to the pope, it included 46 priests, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, 52 exorcists, readers, and doormen, and more than 1,500 widows. It has been estimated, on the basis of these figures, that the Roman community may have numbered 50,000 persons in the mid-third century.
The emperor Decius had died in battle, but his successor Gallus (251–253) continued to persecute, banishing Cornelius to Centumcellae (Civitavecchia) in June of 252. He "died there gloriously," according to the Liberian Catalogue. He was not, it seems, officially regarded as a martyr at first, though Cyprian hailed him as such. He is not listed in the Fourth-century Depositio Martyrum, and a marble slab bearing the inscription Cornelius Martyr ep, found in the crypt of Lucina in the cemetery of St. Callistus, where Cornelius was buried, has the word martyr added by a later hand. The account of the alleged trial of Cornelius by Decius in the Liber pontificalis is taken from an apocryphal fifth-century passio of Cornelius. Three of his letters have survived, two to Cyprian (Epist. 49; 50) and one to Fabius of Antioch.
Feast: Sept. 16.
Bibliography: g. mercati, Opere minore, v.2 (Studium 77;1937) 226–240, letters. Liber pontificalis, ed. l. duchesne (Paris 1886–92) 1:150–152; 3.74. j. quasten, Patrology (Westminster MD 1950) 2:236–237. g. bardy, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al. (Paris 1912) 13:891–894. g. schweiger, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 3:57–58. r. u. montini, Le tombe dei papi (Rome 1957) 77–79. e. ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (New York 1997) 1.294. j. n. d. kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes (New York 1986) 17–18.