Saint Cornelius was Pope for a scant two years in the third century, elected in 251, fighting against Novatian, who declared himself anti-Pope (although he did consider himself such). Novatian was an early hard-liner, declaring that certain sins were so bad, not least apostasy, that one could never seek reconciliation with the Church (nor with God, one might presume). Cornelius realized that God’s mercy was far greater than any of our sins, and that if men must forgive each other ‘seventy times seven times’, God forgiveness is infinitely beyond this.
Although Cornelius helped lay the groundwork for healing this error and its schism within the Church, he was not so fortunate in placating the Roman authorities, meeting his end and gaining his final reward in the persecution under Emperor Decius, being exiled, and perishing of his hardships.
Saint Cyprian, whom we also celebrate today, was bishop of the coastal city of Carthage, in what was the Roman-governed territory in North Africa. He is famous for his theological treatises in beautiful classical Latin; he too was a foe of the Novatians, and helped fight and heal the ensuing schism. A certain amount of controversy surrounds his episcopacy, as he fled into hiding under the threat of martyrdom under the same Decian persecution. I might run also, but Cyprian’s flight was complicated by the fact that he was a bishop; he defended his action, that he would was more useful governing the scattered flock than dead, and we can honour that decision. However, God did call him to martyrdom eventually when a subsequent persecution arose under Emperor Valerian (the same one that took Pope Sixtus II and his deacons, including Saint Lawrence). Cyprian penned his final treatise, De exhortatione martyrii, a noble exhortation to die of the faith, and he gave his final witness, losing his head to the sword on September 14, 258.
We again live in an era where bishops are fighting bishops, cardinals, cardinals, laymen against them also and each other, and the language and stakes are increasing in intensity. I suppose there was never an era where this was not the case, if one can obverse those negatives. It seems now we are getting to the very nub of the matter of what it means to be ‘Catholic’, a follower of Christ and His Church. This requires a solid intellectual and spiritual foundation and formation, which can guide the empathy and passions, the whispers of the world in all its seductions, to keep one’s eyes focused on the truth, with one’s face set like flint, in those things, those truths, that are absolutely necessary and not open to compromise, like throwing our ‘incense’ in worship of all the false gods before us.
So did our Fathers of old. So must we. And the grace of Christ will not only sustain us, but give us great joy and hope in the journey. Unity in charity, and charity in unity.
Saints Cyprian and Cornelius, orate pro nobis!