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Nothing certain is known of Cornelius’ early life. After Rome had been without a bishop for about a year because of the persecution of the Emperor Decius, Cornelius, a member of the Cornelia family, was elected Bishop of Rome in 251 by the clergy and people. The principal difficulty he had to face was not persecution but divisions in the Christian community arising out of the reconciling of those who had lapsed by, for instance, denying their faith.

A priest, Novatian, was against the bishop’s policy of forgiveness. He claimed that the Church had no power to pardon those who had lapsed during time of persecution. The same applied to cases of murder, adultery and even in the cases of those who had entered a second marriage (also seen as a form of adultery). Novatian then set himself up as a rival pope.

However, Cornelius, with the strong support of Cyprian, whose feast we also celebrate today, insisted that the Church did have the power to forgive apostates and other sinners. And that they could be re-admitted to the Eucharistic table after having performed an appropriate period of penance. Some letters of Cornelius to Cyprian together with Cyprian’s replies have survived.

A synod of Western bishops in Rome in October, 251 upheld Cornelius, condemned the teachings of Novatian, and excommunicated him and his followers. When persecutions of the Christians started up again in 253 under Emperor Gallus, Cornelius was exiled to Centum Cellae (Civita Vecchia), where he died a martyr probably of hardships endured.

But Cyprian called him a martyr and later accounts said that Cornelius had been beheaded. He was buried at Rome in the crypt of Lucina, where his tomb can still be seen with the inscription ‘Cornelius Martyr’. A painting of Cyprian was added to the wall of the crypt in the 8th century.

Cyprian (Thasius Cecilianus Cyprianus) was born about the year 200 at Carthage in North Africa. He was of a wealthy and distinguished pagan background. He was either of Punic stock or, as is sometimes claimed, a Berber. In fact, the site of his eventual martyrdom was his own villa. He became an orator, a teacher of rhetoric, and an advocate in the courts before being converted to Christianity about 245.

After his baptism he gave away a portion of his wealth to the poor of Carthage, as befitted a man of his rank. He gave up all pagan writing and devoted himself exclusively to Scripture and Christian commentaries. He particularly liked Tertullian, whom he regarded as his master.

In the early days of his conversion he wrote an Epistola ad Donatum de gratia Dei (Letter to Donatus concerning God’s grace), and three books of Testimoniorum adversus Judæos that adhere closely to the models of Tertullian, who influenced his style and thinking, and are largely interesting as a document in the history of anti-semitism.

A few years after his conversion he was ordained priest and in 248 was proclaimed Bishop of Carthage by the clergy, the people and with the agreement of neighbouring bishops. However, a small number of people refused to recognise the appointment. And very soon he was facing the persecution of the Emperor Decius. He took refuge in a safer place but kept in contact with his flock by letter.

During the persecution a number of Christians renounced their faith by sacrificing to idols or bought certificates which falsely claimed they had made the sacrifices. After a suitable period of penance, Cyprian reconciled these apostates. One of his priests, Novatus, accepted them back without imposing any penance.

However, as we saw with Cornelius, Novatian the anti-pope, denied that the Church had the right to absolve them. Cyprian, for his part, insisted on quiet compassion, on the unity of the Church and the need for obedience and loyalty on the part of all. In 251, his policy towards the lapsed was approved by the Council of Carthage.

Another controversial issue was the validity of baptism performed by people not in union with the pope, by heretics and apostates. Against the opinion of Pope Stephen II, Cyprian was against the validity of these baptisms and in this was supported by other North African bishops. The issue was resolved only after the death of Stephen and Cyprian by the Church accepting the Roman tradition in favour of the validity of such baptisms.

At the end of 256 a new persecution of the Christians under the emperor Valerian broke out, and both Pope Stephen and his successor, Sixtus II, were martyred in Rome. In Africa, Cyprian courageously prepared his people for the expected edict of persecution by his De exhortatione martyrii. He himself was brought before the Roman proconsul Aspasius Paternus on 30 August 257. He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Christ.

The consul banished him to remote Churubis. From here he comforted as best he could his flock and exiled clergy. In a vision he saw his approaching fate. After a year he was recalled but kept a prisoner in his own villa. A new and more stringent imperial edict demanded the execution of all Christian clerics. On 13 September 258, Cyprian was imprisoned by orders of a new proconsul, Galerius Maximus.

On the following day he was examined for the last time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was “Thanks be to God!” The execution was carried out at once in an open place near the city. A large crowd followed Cyprian on his last journey. He took off his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself, he was beheaded.

The body was interred by Christians near the place of execution, and over both his tomb and place of execution churches were erected. They were later destroyed by the Vandals. Charlemagne is said to have had the bones transferred to France and Lyons, Arles, Venice, Compiègne, and Roenay in Flanders all boast possession of the martyr’s relics.

Contemporary writings indicate a devoted and pastoral bishop who was deeply respected. His thoughts are best revealed in his writings. Among the most important are his De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate (On the Unity of the Universal Church), De Lapsis (On the Apostates), De Habitu Virginum (On the Dress of Virgins) as well as sermons and letters.

Cornelius and Cyprian are linked together in the Catholic liturgy and are mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer.

POPE AND MARTYR (251 – 253)

Pope Cornelius was the successor to Pope Fabian. During his reign a controversy arose concerning the manner of reinstating those who had fallen from the faith under the duress of persecution.

The Novatians accused the Pope of too great indulgence and separated themselves from the Church. With the help of St. Lucina, Cornelius transferred the remains of the princes of the apostles to places of greater honor.

On account of his successful preaching the pagans banished him to Centumcellae, where he died. St. Cyprian sent him a letter of condolence. At the time of Pope Cornelius there were at Rome forty-six priests, seven deacons, seven subdeacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty-two clerics and more than five hundred widows who were supported by the Church (according to Cornelius’ letter to Bishop Fabian of Antioch). He is patron for ear ache; against epilepsy; fever; cattle; domestic animals.



Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus, illustrious as a pagan rhetorician in Carthage, embraced the true faith in the year 246 and was soon thereafter consecrated priest and bishop of that city (248). He was an energetic shepherd of souls and a prolific writer. He defended the unity of the Church against schismatic movements in Africa and Italy, and greatly influenced the shaping of Church discipline relative to reinstating Christians who had apostatized.

He fled during the Decian persecution but guided the Church by means of letters. During the Valerian persecution (258) he was beheaded. He suffered martyrdom in the presence of his flock, after giving the executioner twenty-five pieces of gold. He is patron of Algeria, North Africa.

St. Jerome says of him: “It is superfluous to speak of his greatness, for his works are more luminous than the sun.” Cyprian ranks as an important Church Father, one whose writings are universally respected and often read in the Divine Office. His principal works are: On the Unity of the Church; On Apostates; a collection of Letters; The Lord’s Prayer; On the Value of Patience.

– From The Church’s Year of Grace, Pius Parsch


Eternal Father, you have given your people, in Saints Cornelius and Cyprian, a most inspiring example of consecration of their entire lives to their commitment of pastoral ministry and of complete devotion and dedication as witnesses to Christ in their suffering.

Grant us the courage and fortitude to increase our faith and be true to our Christian beliefs. Help us work towards unification of your Church, through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

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