In the third century, the emperor Decius decided that all who would not give up their Christian faith should be killed. The pope, Fabian, was martyred along with many others. But there were apostates, Christians who did give up their faith. Emperor Decius thought that without a pope, the Church would die, so he prevented the election of another bishop of Rome. A council of priests secretly carried on the work. After a year, while the emperor was away at war, Cornelius was elected pope.
Cornelius found himself in the midst of problems. A priest named Novatian—who became an antipope—and his followers believed that apostates could not be accepted back into the Church even if they had repented. Cornelius called a council of bishops together to settle the dispute. The council reaffirmed Cornelius’s position as pope and condemned Novatian’s view. After two years as pope, Cornelius was arrested under the emperor’s rule and sentenced to banishment. He died in exile in 253.
Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, was a friend and supporter of Cornelius’s at this time. Cyprian was born in Carthage about 210, the son of pagan parents. Cyprian lived a virtuous life after being converted to Christianity as an adult. He was made a priest and then a bishop.
As bishop of Carthage for nearly 10 years, Cyprian had only one year of peace. After that, the persecutions under Decius began, as well as disagreements over what to do with apostates. Like Cornelius, Cyprian had to deal with Novatian. New persecutions broke out under Emperor Valerian. Cyprian was arrested and tried for being a Christian. When he was read his death sentence, he exclaimed “Blessed be God!” He was martyred in 258.
Cornelius and Cyprian encouraged each other to lead virtuous, self-sacrificing, and loving lives for God. There is no greater gift that one friend can offer to another. Today let us think of ways to help our friends grow closer to God.
Have the students discuss the importance of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation in their lives and the need to ask forgiveness from those they have offended. Prepare a short penance celebration or have the students exchange a sign of peace.
Students might do research on the catacombs (Cornelius was buried in a crypt near the catacomb of Callistus); apostates; antipopes (Novatian was one of the first); or Decius, Valerian, and other persecutors and persecutions of the early Church.
Excerpted from Christ Our Life, by Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon, Ohio
Image credit: Saint Cornelius by Miester von MeBkirch, 1540. Public Domain via Wikimedia.