Saint Cornelius was elected Pope in 251 during the persecutions of the Emperor Decius. In hopes that Christianity would fade away, Decius ordered all citizens to perform a religious sacrifice in the presence of commissioners, or else face death. Many Christians refused and were martyred. Decius then prevented the election of a new pope. However, soon afterwards Decius was forced to leave the area to fight the invading Goths and while he was away the elections for pope were held. In the 14 months without a pope, the leading candidate, Moses, had died under the persecution. The Roman priest, Novatian, convened a synod of bishops to confirm him as the rightful successor of Peter. However Cornelius was unwillingly elected the twenty-first pope in March 251.
Novatian was very angry not only that he was not elected pope, but that someone who did not believe in rebaptism was. After Cornelius’s appointment to the papacy, Novatian became more rigorous in his philosophy, convinced that bishops could not pardon the worst of sins, and that such sins could only be reconciled at the Last Judgment.
Cornelius had the support of St. Cyprian, St. Dionysius, and most African and Eastern bishops while Novatian had the support of a minority of clergy and laymen in Rome who did not acknowledge Cornelius as pope. Cornelius’s next action was to convene a synod of 60 bishops to restate himself as the rightful pope and the council excommunicated Novatian as well as all Novatianists. Also addressed in the synod was that Christians who stopped practising during Emperor must be welcomed back and insisted that they perform an adequate penance.
The verdict of the synod was sent to the Christian bishops, most notably the bishop of Antioch, a fierce Novatian supporter, in order to convince him to accept Cornelius’s power. The letters that Cornelius sent to surrounding bishops provide knowledge of the size of the church during the period. His letters also inform that Cornelius had a staff of over 150 clergy members and the church fed over 1,500 people daily. From these numbers, it has been estimated that there were at least 50,000 Christians in Rome during the papacy of Pope Cornelius.
In June 251, Decius was killed in battle with the Goths; immediately following this Trebonianus Gallus became Emperor. Cornelius was exiled by the emperor Gallus and died of the hardships he endured in exile. The Liberian catalogue lists his death as being from the hardships of banishment; however, later sources claim he was beheaded. He was exiled to Centumcellae, Italy, where he died in June 253 and venerated as a martyr.