Today we celebrate the Memorial of Saints Cornelius, Pope, and Cyprian, Bishop, and Martyrs. There’s a beautiful history found in these valiant men, filled with abundant lessons for us all that include firmness in professing the faith, orthodoxy, and unity among the People of God.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
16 September, 2019
Today’s Gospel (Luke 7:1-10) revolves around the story of the faithful centurion who sends elders of the Jews to intercede before Jesus for the health of his valued slave. In humility, the centurion offers his own profession of faith to Jesus by demonstrating confidence in his divine power to heal. Since a major element of the gospel is Jesus’ praise of the centurion’s faith, it’s an appropriate gospel to provide a backdrop in terms of the valiant commitment to faith and truth displayed by Saints Cornelius and Cyprian.
To provide some historical context, the centurion was a roman officer in command of 100 soldiers and, on hearing the plight of his slave, Jesus decides to help him. While Jesus is a short distance from his home, the centurion once again sends friends to intercede for him, giving this message to Jesus: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.”
In these words, the centurion displays humility despite popular sentiment about his worthiness based on his support of the Jewish people and his building of a synagogue. He also shows sensitivity to Jewish cultural practices, since Jews were discouraged from entering the homes of Gentiles (1). Remember, the Jews believed they alone comprised the chosen people to whom God would send the Messiah. Gentiles were viewed as pagan outsiders. Above all, the centurion gives a profession of faith in Jesus through his display of confidence in his goodness and divine power.
When we, prior to the reception of Christ himself in the Eucharist, say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” we too display before God in humility our unworthiness of such a magnificent, unmerited gift, a gift which is in reality a share in the divine life of Christ. In receiving the Eucharist, we not only become one body in Christ, we become one with the risen Lord by virtue of consuming his flesh and blood, which brings us into conformity with him.
When the faithful recite, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” they too confess the divinity of Christ in faith, for these words express the fact that the Glorified Christ is truly present in the Eucharist which they are about to receive.
Jesus praises the centurion’s words, saying, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” The Centurion’s faith is astonishing in comparison to what Jesus has encountered among his own people, and looks forward to the acceptance of the Gentiles into the New Covenant Church of Jesus Christ (2). The centurion is the proto-Gentile of faith, a kind of first ancestor of the People of God who are of non-Jewish descent.
We find also an astonishing level of faith in Pope Cornelius and Bishop Cyprian.
The Faith of Cornelius and Cyprian
After the martyrdom of Pope Fabian under the Emperor Decius, there was no pope for about 14 months due to the severe atmosphere of persecution in Rome. This persecution arose because Decius published an edict against Christians requiring that bishops be put to death and all Christians be brutally tortured until they recanted the faith. This torture included all manner of bloody executions, whether by beheading or by being burned alive or some other such brutality. Consequently, Christians of the day were put to an extreme, radical test of faith.
It was in this atmosphere that Cornelius was elected Pope—although he resisted the election in humility, which is a sign of both his worthiness and Christ’s approval. One of the greatest issues Pope Cornelius had to deal with during his two-year term, in addition to Roman persecution, was the Novatian schismatics, which began with the invalid election of the priest Novatian, who became one of the first anti-popes in the Church.
Novatian held to the practice that Christians who had renounced their faith during the former persecution in Rome—and there were many who did this in various ways—couldn’t receive sacramental absolution and be readmitted to the Eucharist. This meant that Christians who recanted under persecution could never again be called by that name. He held the same regarding those guilty of the grave sins of murder, adultery, and formication.
At a synod at Rome in 251, Pope Cornelius ruled that apostates could be restored to friendship with God and reconciled with the Church through the “medicines of repentance,” which included primarily sacramental absolution. This ruling was in harmony with the fact that God is merciful to those who sincerely repent of their sins, regardless of their grave nature. There are no limits on God’s mercy because God’s power to cleanse is infinite in scope. However, repentance is required to receive forgiveness, for God is not a permissive God of cheap grace, nor is he an unjust God who treats the wicked in the same manner as the righteous.
When a new persecution broke out in Rome in the year 252, Pope Cornelius gave such strong witness to the faith that not a single Christian recanted or committed apostacy. St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote of this in a letter:
Dearest brother, bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle [St. Peter] praised in your community. He foresaw in the spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that could not be broken; he was heralding the future when he testified to your achievements; his praise of the fathers was a challenge to the sons. Your unity, your strength have become shining examples of these virtues to the rest of the brethren.
As an interesting aside, during Cornelius’s pontificate, in the Church of Rome there were 46 priests and seven deacons, with also some sub-deacons and acolytes.
Pope Cornelius was eventually exiled to Civita Vecchia. He is reported to have died there due to the severity of his exile or by beheading. In either case, he died a martyr by virtue of his unwavering profession of the divine faith of the Church.
Saints Cornelius and Cyprian were true brothers in the Lord, as we are all called to be.
One Truth, One Faith, One Lord
In the same letter to Cornelius, St. Cyprian emphasized the unity of the People of God, as one Church professing one faith: “After all, we have the same Church, the same mind, the same unbroken harmony.”
St. Paul emphasizes this unity, teaching that it is based on the unity of the Tripersonal God himself, when he says in his First Letter to Timothy (in today’s first reading, 2:1-8): “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
There is one God. As God is one, there is one holy, Catholic and apostolic Church; there is one Truth, and one profession of faith for all her members. As Catholics, we hold in common the treasury of the gospel, the saving power of God. Let us never be swayed from this unity of truth by the secularist, modernist voices of our age, which so loudly labor to instill division and disharmony amongst the people of God, by sowing doctrinal confusion from within and without, promoting the idea that one can be Christian while professing a disfigured creed of one’s own design.
The Martyrdom of Saint Cyprian
St. Cyprian was martyred on 14 September, 258. The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
On the morning of the 14th a crowd gathered “at the villa of Sextus”, by order of the authorities. Cyprian was tried there. He refused to sacrifice, and added that in such a matter there was no room for thought of the consequences to himself. The proconsul read his condemnation and the multitude cried, “Let us be beheaded with him!” He was taken into the grounds, to a hollow surrounded by trees, into which many of the people climbed. Cyprian took off his cloak, and knelt down and prayed. Then he took off his dalmatic and gave it to his deacons, and stood in his linen tunic in silence awaiting the executioner, to whom he ordered twenty-five gold pieces to be given. The brethren cast cloths and handkerchiefs before him to catch his blood. He bandaged his own eyes with the help of a priest and a deacon, both called Julius. So he suffered. For the rest of the day his body was exposed to satisfy the curiosity of the pagans. But at night the brethren bore him with candles and torches, with prayer and great triumph, to the cemetery of Macrobius Candidianus in the suburb of Mapalia. He was the first Bishop of Carthage to obtain the crown of martyrdom.
The Importance of Orthodox Witness of the Divine Faith
Like the martyrs of old, we too will one day be put to the test. Perhaps that day is now at hand. It is our orthodox witness of the faith that will distinguish us as true followers of Christ and thus win for us the banner of victory over the clamorous but doomed voices of dissent, so often shouted from the lips of those who heedlessly disregard the truth.
In speaking and living the truth as a faithful Catholic is found an effective weapon against the lies of Satan and his followers. The more we live out the saving principles of the gospel, united in truth to Christ who is Truth Itself, the more the lies of relativism and the tenets of the culture of death will be forced into submission.
- Ignatius New Testament Catholic Study Bible.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.