Pope Saint Cornelius, whose feast is celebrated on September 16th, ascended to the papacy after the passing of Pope Fabian. His election, however, was delayed for over a year due to the relentless persecution of Christians by Decius.
One of the primary challenges during Cornelius’s tenure was addressing the fate of Christians who renounced their faith during these times of oppression. He faced a dilemma: on one side were the confessors who believed in leniency without necessitating penance from the apostates. Opposing them were the Rigorists, led by a Roman priest named Novatian, who argued that those who lapsed from their faith (known as the lapsi) were beyond the Church’s redemption. Novatian took his beliefs to the extreme by proclaiming himself the true Pope, becoming history’s first antipope.
Amid this contention, Cornelius championed a balanced view. He aligned with St. Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, against the ambitions of Novatus and his accomplice, Felicissimus. Novatus had instated Felicissimus as a rival bishop against Cyprian during his stay in Rome. Despite the challenges, Pope Cornelius maintained that with genuine repentance and appropriate penance, lapsi could be readmitted into the Church’s fold and partake in the sacraments.
His stance received affirmation in October 251, when a gathering of Western bishops in Rome upheld his leadership, denounced Novatian’s doctrine, and excommunicated both him and his adherents. However, peace was short-lived. In 253, persecution against Christians resumed under the rule of Emperor Gallus. This resurgence of hostility led to Cornelius’s exile to Centum Cellae (now Civita Vecchia). There, facing harsh conditions, he met his end, earning the title of martyr.