The names of several Apostles, popes and other male saints of the early church appear in brackets in the First Eucharistic Prayer, which means that their names are almost never mentioned at Mass, even when the presider uses that prayer.
These figures share the same fate, however, with the only saintly women who are included, also in brackets, in the second half of the same prayer: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia and Anastasia. One almost never hears their names proclaimed in the traditional Roman canon.
This week’s column is about one of those early saints — a relatively obscure pope by the name of Cornelius, who served as Bishop of Rome from 251 until 253. The immediate occasion for our reflection is his approaching feast day on Sept. 16.
There is a lesson to be learned, even today, from Pope Cornelius’s pastoral style. He reigned at a time of controversy and internal conflict in the church, which has proved to be all too common throughout its history and into our own time.
The issue then was whether those who had been baptized by heretics or by schismatics (those who had broken communion with the church but without denying any of its doctrines) were required to be rebaptized upon entering or returning to the Catholic Church.
On one side were those, including Cornelius, who favored a pastorally compassionate approach. Rebaptism should not be required. An act of contrition and some sign of repentance were deemed sufficient.
Others insisted on rebaptism. They included Novatian, the priest who governed the diocese of Rome for more than a year, between the death of Cornelius’s predecessor, Fabian, and the election of Cornelius himself to the papacy.
The election had been postponed for 14 months because of the violent persecution of the church under the Emperor Decius and because several members of the Roman clergy, including the leading candidate for the papacy, were in prison. During the interregnum, the Roman church was governed, as it had been throughout the first century of its existence, by a council of elders, with the presbyter Novatian acting as its leader and spokesman.
The following spring the emperor left Rome to fight the Goths. During his absence the persecution subsided and the election of a new Bishop of Rome was held. By this time, however, the leading candidate, the presbyter Moses, had died in prison.
Novatian fully expected that he would be elected, but the clergy voted instead for Cornelius, a fellow priest of the Diocese of Rome. Cyprian, the influential bishop of Carthage in North Africa, had described Cornelius as an unambitious priest who had come up through the ranks.
Novatian reacted bitterly to the result and had himself ordained a bishop, setting himself up as a rival (antipope) to Cornelius. What fueled Novatian’s hostility to Cornelius (beyond his own ambition) was Cornelius’s readiness to readmit to communion, after a suitable penance, those Christians who had lapsed during the recent persecution.
Novatian was strongly opposed to reconciliation, under any conditions. Indeed, this was probably the central issue in the papal election itself.
He tried to persuade the bishops of other Christian centers to accept his title to the Roman see, and in Rome itself a faction of rigorist clergy and laity refused to recognize Cornelius’s authority.
Cornelius, however, had powerful supporters outside of Rome as well as within. Cyprian of Carthage and Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, were among them.
Because of Novatian’s persistent and divisive opposition, Cornelius excommunicated him and his followers, but not on his own authority alone. He convened a synod that was attended by 60 bishops and many priests and deacons. The synod supported the excommunications and also the pope’s policy of readmitting to full communion, after appropriate contrition and “the medicines of repentance,” those who had lapsed during the Decian persecution.
Cornelius sent copies of the synodal decisions to various bishops, including the rigorist, pro-Novatian bishop of Antioch in order to persuade him to end his support for Novatian and to accept the pastorally moderate approach adopted by the majority of churches.
Incidentally, these letters have provided historians with detailed statistics for the Roman church of the mid-third century, which included 46 priests, seven deacons and 1,500 widows (who were also considered officers of the church). On the basis of various figures, it has been estimated that the Roman church at this time had some 50,000 members.
When the next emperor resumed the persecutions, Cornelius was arrested and later died from the hardships of prison. But after only two years in office, he had made his mark and set a pastoral example for other popes to follow.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.