Cornelius (2), bp. of Rome, successor of Fabianus, said to have been son of Castinus. After the martyrdom of Fabianus in Jan. 250, in the Decian persecution, the see remained vacant for a year and a half. In June, a.d. 251, Cornelius was elected to the vacant post; and, although very reluctantly, he accepted an election almost unanimously made by both orders, during the life of a tyrant who had declared that he would rather see a new pretender to the empire than a new bishop of Rome (Cyprian., Ep. Iii.). Decius was at that time absent from Rome, prosecuting the Gothic war which ended in his death in the winter of the same year. The persecution of the Christians thus came to an end; but then arose the difficult question of how to treat the libellatici, Christians who had bought their life by the acceptance of false certificates of having sacrificed to heathen gods. Cornelius took a line at variance with that of Cyprian and the church of Carthage, which required rigorous penance as the price of readmission, while Rome prescribed milder terms. The difference was kept alive by the discontent of the minority within both the churches. This was represented at Carthage by Novatus, who separated from the church when unable to obtain less harsh terms; in Rome by a man of similar name, Novatian, who was in favour of greater rigour than the church would allow. Novatus crossed the sea to aid Novatian in designs at Rome which must have been directly opposed to his own at Carthage. Mainly by his influence Novatian was consecrated a bishop, and thus constituted the head of a schismatic body in Rome. Eusebius ( Hist. Eccl. vi. 43) quotes from a letter of bp. Cornelius to bp. Fabius of Antioch, in which he gives an account of his rival, with statistics as to the number of Roman clergy in his day. These were 46 priests, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, 52 exorcists, 52 readers and ostiarii; 1,500 widows and orphans were provided for by the church.
The Novatianist heresy gave rise to a correspondence between Cyprian and Cornelius. Persecution was revived in Rome by Gallus, and Cornelius, followed by almost the whole church (among whom were many restored libellatics), took refuge at Centumcellae in Etruria. There Cornelius died, and another bishop, Lucius, was at the head of the church when it returned. It is doubtful whether Cornelius died a violent death. Cyprian and Jerome both speak of him as a martyr. He died Sept. 14, 252. His name as a martyr has been found in the Catacombs at some little distance from those of other popes, and in a cemetery apparently devoted almost exclusively to the gens Cornelia, whence De Rossi argues that he probably belonged to that patrician gens (Roma Sotterranea, by Northcote and Brownlow, pp. 177â€“183).