What little we know about Saint Cornelius comes from chapters 10 and 11 of the Acts of the Apostles. However, his brief story marks an important shift in the life of the Early Church: through his encounter with Cornelius, Saint Peter was convinced that the Gospel message must be taken to the Gentiles.
In Acts, Saint Luke tells us that Cornelius was the commander of a cohort of Roman soldiers and that he was “devout and God-fearing along with his whole household” (10:2). Luke continues by pointing out that Cornelius was generous in giving alms to the Jewish people and that he was a man devoted to God. These are important details, especially when we remember that the Jewish people were subjects of the Roman Empire.
One afternoon, Cornelius received a vision of an angel who told him: “Your prayers and almsgiving have ascended as a memorial offering before God. Now send some men to Joppa and summon one Simon who is called Peter” (v. 6). Cornelius obeyed and sent two servants and a trusted solider to look for Saint Peter.
|Peter baptizing Cornelius|
depicted on the 12th-century baptismal font
in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Liège, Belgium
At the same time, Peter had a vision. He had been struggling over the question of whether the Christian community should welcome non-Jews into the Church. As he tried to understand his vision, he heard a voice telling him that “what God has made clean, you must not profane” (vv. 9-15). While Peter was puzzling over what to make of all this, Cornelius’ men arrived. Peter accepted their invitation and, after offering the three men hospitality, he traveled with them to Cornelius’ home, despite the fact that devout Jews were forbidden to enter the home of a Gentile. Cornelius explained his vision to Peter who realized how special Cornelius was. More than that, however, Peter realized that the Good News was intended for all people: “In truth, I see that God shows not partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (vv. 34-36). Peter was then inspired to baptize Cornelius and his family, an act which marked a new beginning for the Church. Later traditions tell us that Cornelius traveled with Saint Peter and eventually became bishop of Caesarea, an important Christian center in the first centuries after Jesus.
As we celebrate the memory of Saint Cornelius each February 2, the Universal Church is also celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the great day recalling when Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth. That was the day when the old prophet Simeon took Jesus into his arms and offered his great hymn of praise: My eyes have seen your salvation,/ which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: / a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:31-32). But Simeon also recognized that the Child's life would be a mix of sorrow and joy and the source of salvation and hope for all people. That life with the mysteries of passion, death, and resurrection, was the Good News that Cornelius accepted and which re-shaped his whole existence.
In his Message for the 34th World Communications Day, Saint John Paul II reminded us:
The living heart of the message which the Apostles preach is Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection—life triumphant over sin and death. Peter tells the centurion Cornelius and his household: ‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest ... And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead’ (Acts 10:39-42).
It goes without saying that circumstances have changed enormously in two millennia. Yet the same need to proclaim Christ still exists. Our duty to bear witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus and to his saving presence in our lives is as real and pressing as was the duty of the first disciples. We must tell the good news to all who are willing to listen.In a profound way, Saint Cornelius and his family represent each one of us. We come from a culture that isn’t looking for a Savior and which values power and comfort, much like the Roman Empire that Cornelius was part of. And yet, despite that, the light of grace began to lead him on a new path. In accepting the Gospel, the lives of Cornelius and his family were forever changed and their openness to God’s grace also marked a significant change in the Church. The same possibilities exist for us and the Church when we are able to open ourselves to God’s voice calling us to choose a different and better way—a life of discipleship.
A prayer in honor of Saint Cornelius the Centurion +O God, by your Spirit you called Cornelius the Centurion to be the first Christian among the Gentiles; Grant to your Church such a ready will to go where you send and to do what you command, that under your guidance it may welcome all who turn to you in love and faith, and proclaim the Gospel to all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from Holy Women, Holy Men)
This post was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and published on their website on February 2, 2015.