Cornelius, pope from March 251 to June 253, was confronted with the problem of deciding the Church’s attitude towards Christians who had forsworn their faith under persecution, but who subsequently wanted to return to the fold. Cornelius held that such backsliders could be readmitted after doing appropriate penance. Others, however, led by a brilliant priest called Novatian, considered that those who had betrayed Christ should be permanently anathematised. Cornelius’s predecessor as pope, Fabian, had been one of the first to perish in the persecution ordered by the Emperor Decius in 250.
The chair of St Peter then remained empty for more than a year, while a college of priests, dominated by Novatian, assumed charge of the Church in Rome.
This gap in the papal succession was not as serious as it might have been later, because in the mid-third century the primacy of Rome, while acknowledged, was regarded as being vested in the entire Church within the city, rather than in its bishop alone.
The title “pope”, in fact, signified very much less than it does today. Indeed, several bishops at that time, including St Cyprian of Carthage (who shares his feast day with Cornelius), called themselves “pope”.
Certainly, Christ had founded the Church upon the rock of Peter. Before the sixth century, however, bishops beyond Rome did not readily accept direction from the papacy. Rather, they believed, as Eamon Duffy has explained, that “all the Apostles and all the bishops shared in the one indivisible apostolic power”.
Inevitably this notion led to contention. Certainly Novatian’s intransigent policy towards apostates provoked opposition; and no doubt the mild and seemingly lacklustre Cornelius was elected pope in 251 on the understanding that he would show more compassion to the weaker brethren.
Supported by Cyprian, Cornelius did indeed modify Novatian’s rigorism, and extend a more merciful hand to those who had denied Christ under the pressure of persecution.
Novatian, at once furious to have been displaced and outraged by the new policy, set himself up as a kind of anti-pope. Cornelius was able to secure his excommunication; nevertheless the dissident Novatianist church spread as far west as Spain and as far east as Mesopotamia, surviving into the fifth century.
A letter which Cornelius wrote to the bishop of Antioch betrays all too clearly the repugnance in which he held his rival. Novatian, he claimed, had never been properly ordained, had indeed been possessed by Satan while still a catechumen. Both men, however, died for their beliefs. When the Emperor Gallus revived the persecution of Christians in 252 Cornelius was imprisoned in Civitavecchia, where he expired the following year. His tomb, inscribed “Cornelius Martyr”, may still be seen in Rome in the catacomb of Lucina, on the Appian Way.
Novatian was martyred in 258.