Saint Cornelius was ordained as the Bishop of Rome in 251. His major contribution was to defend the faith against the Novatian schismatics, a group who denied the readmission into the Church of those who had lapsed in the faith when they performed a ritual sacrifice to pagan gods, under the threat of death by the Roman Emperor. Cornelius argued that being coerced did not sufficiently demonstrate a denial of the faith, and those who fell into it should be readmitted after performing penance. Saint Cyprian was a brother bishop who helped him in this struggle. Both men were subsequently martyred for the faith. Cornelius died in exile in 253, and Cyprian was beheaded in 258.
The focus of both men was to preserve church unity during a time when there was much oppression against the church. Cyprian wrote to Cornelius, “Dearest brother, bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle (that is, St. Paul) praised in your community. He foresaw in the spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that could not be broken; he was heralding the future when he testified to your achievements; his praise of the fathers was a challenge to the sons. Your unity, your strength have become shining examples of these virtues to the rest of the brethren.”
The unity of the Church is one of the four marks of the Church, along with holy, catholic and apostolic. So preserving our unity is one of our primary duties, even now. That’s a challenge to us in these days of so many people not really living their faith; being “spiritual but not religious,” whatever that means, and so many little splinter churches starting up. This was not how Christ intended it to be and it’s up to all of us to be open to the return of our brothers and sisters.
So what will our own efforts at unity look like today?