If you have been reading my Forbidden Bible Verses series over the past few weeks, you are acquainted with Acts 10, starring St Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, a student of Rembrandt’s, painted ‘Vision of Cornelius the Centurion’ in 1664. Eeckhout learned well from his master. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

If you are a newer subscriber, here are the posts about Cornelius and Peter:

Acts 10:1-8Cornelius, divine vision, angel, Peter, God-fearer

Acts 10:9-16Peter, divine vision, allegory, animals, Gentiles, forbidden food is now clean

Acts 10:17-23Peter, Holy Spirit, obedience, Gentiles, hospitality

Acts 10:24-29Peter, Cornelius, Jewish converts, Gentile converts

Acts 10:30-33Peter, Cornelius, Jew, Gentile, Jesus Christ

Acts 10:44-48 Peter, Cornelius, the Holy Spirit, baptism, Jew, Gentile

Acts 10 formally brought Gentiles into the Church, beginning with Cornelius, his family and friends.

John MacArthur tells us that Cornelius was a powerful man who believed in the God of Israel before he met Peter, who preached about Jesus Christ (emphases mine):

Now, Cornelius is a Gentile, a ruler, really in a real sense, because he ruled over a hundred men in the army of Rome

Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea and was part of the Italian Cohort (Acts 10:1).

It is strange that, having attended Catholic schools for nearly all of my academic career, I never heard of Cornelius — until I read the Bible in its entirety a few years ago.

I am not alone. Many Catholics have not heard of him.

Angelo Stagnaro wrote an article for the National Catholic Register in February 2017. I highly recommend reading ‘What Do We Know About St Cornelius the Centurion?’ It’s factual as well as being witty and warm.

Stagnaro opens by describing what happened at a Sons of Italy meeting he attended wherein the men and women assembled were thinking of a name for a new chapter of the organisation. The chapter had to be named after an Italian or an American with Italian ancestry.

Stagnaro offered what he thought was a brilliant suggestion:

How about St. Cornelius the Centurion?” I suggested.

“Who’s he?” came back the reply.

That’s not an uncommon question considering the Church has more than 17,000 saints and beati―no one could know all of them. So, I explained.

“St. Cornelius the Centurion is the first gentile, that is, non-Jew, who converted to Christianity. He’s Italian.”

All one-hundred people in the parish hall froze amid cannoli and snapped around to look at me. The gentleman leading the meeting had an almost panicked look on his face.

“Wait! What!?!” he demanded. 

“The first non-Jew to convert to Christianity was Italian,” I reiterated.

More accusatory silence.

“Where did you get this information?!” asked the group’s elected leader.

I was half expecting someone to yell out, “Leave the gun―take the cannolis.”

“From the Bible,” I replied, surprised at the crowd’s reaction

Stagnaro read them Acts 10 from his tablet.

The upshot is, how could so many Catholics — especially those with Italian heritage — not know of Cornelius? Stagnaro describes what it was like after the meeting ended (emphases in the original):

… twenty people came up to me after the meeting to verify what they thought I had said. 

“Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?

“I went to a Catholic school in an Italian parish and no one told me this!”

I know the feeling! I agree! How could it be?

Back to the life of Cornelius now. There was a lot of information for St Luke to put into the Book of Acts, so we do not hear any more about the centurion after Acts 10.

Wikipedia tells us (emphases mine):

Cornelius was a centurion in the Roman Empire’s Cohors II Italica Civium Romanorum which was stationed in Caesarea, the capital of Roman Iudaea province, to keep the Pax Romana.

Coptics believe that Cornelius retired from the Roman army after receiving the Holy Spirit and baptism:

Afterwards, Cornelius left the military service and followed the Apostles. St. Peter then ordained him a Bishop over the city of Caesarea of Palestine. He went there and proclaimed the Name of Christ, showing them the error of worshipping idols. Their minds were illuminated with the knowledge of God and they believed in Him. He strengthened them with the signs and miracles he performed before them and he baptized them all and among them was Demetrius the Governor. Then he departed in peace and received the crown of glory of the apostles.

We have no way of verifying if Cornelius performed these miracles, although the Orthodox Church in America also believe that he left the Roman army for ministry. Their site has a longer story about the conversion of Demetrius the Governor — or prince — excerpted below:

When the Apostle Peter, together with his helpers Saints Timothy and Cornelius, was in the city of Ephesus, he learned of a particularly vigorous idol-worship in the city of Skepsis. Lots were drawn to see who would go there, and Saint Cornelius was chosen.

In the city lived a prince by the name of Demetrius, learned in the ancient Greek philosophy, hating Christianity and venerating the pagan gods, in particular Apollo and Zeus. Learning about the arrival of Saint Cornelius in the city, he immediately summoned him and asked him the reason for his coming. Saint Cornelius answered that he came to free him from the darkness of ignorance and lead him to knowledge of the True Light.

The prince, not comprehending the meaning of what was said, became angry and demanded that he answer each of his questions. When Saint Cornelius explained that he served the Lord and that the reason for his coming was to announce the Truth, the prince became enraged and demanded that Cornelius offer sacrifice to the idols.

Cornelius asked to see the idols. Upon entering the temple, Cornelius said a prayer. Then:

There was an earthquake, and the temple of Zeus and the idols situated in it were destroyed. All the populace, seeing what had happened, were terrified.

Demetrius was furious and had Cornelius imprisoned. One of Demetrius’s servants told him that his wife and child had perished under the temple rubble. Some time later, a pagan priest, Barbates, told Demetrius that his wife and child had survived and could be heard praising the Christian God.

Demetrius, relieved and happy, rushed to the prison, said that he, too, believed in the one true God and freed Cornelius, asking him to try and rescue his family from the temple ruins. Cornelius went and prayed until Demetrius’s wife and child were able to emerge from the rubble.

Demetrius asked Cornelius to baptise him, his family and his entourage:

Saint Cornelius lived for a long time in this city, converted all the pagan inhabitants to Christ … Saint Cornelius died in old age and was buried not far from the pagan temple he destroyed. 

Again, we have no way of verifying this, except that he must have done something very special, because his feast day is commemorated in the Orthodox churches (September 13), the Catholic Church (February 2) and the Episcopal Church in the United States (February 4 or 7). In fact:

When Governor’s Island, New York, was a military installation the Episcopal Church maintained a stone chapel there dedicated to him.

These are the lessons that the Episcopal Church has for Cornelius the Centurion:

The Collect: 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.

Isaiah 56:6-8: The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant–

these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.

Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

Psalm 67Deus misereatur:

1 May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.

2 Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.

3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.

5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

6 The earth has brought forth her increase; *
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.

7 May God give us his blessing, *
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.

The Epistle is Acts 10:1-18, which is the account of both Cornelius’s and Peter’s visions.

The Gospel reading is Luke 13:22-29:

Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, `Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, `I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, `We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, `I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.

Bill Kochman has a good article about Cornelius’s life and purpose. He points out that not many people in the Bible received visions. Therefore, God had a plan:

How often is it that people receive a heavenly visitation? The Scriptures seem to indicate that such events are reserved for those who have a very special calling from the Lord such as Moses, Gideon, Joseph and Mary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Paul, etc. Another point worth considering is that Peter was the chief of the Apostles, yet the Lord didn’t think him too big or too busy, or too important to send to these lowly Gentile believers. In fact, the Lord specifically gave Peter his vision to convince him of the importance of his mission to Caesarea. The Lord knew that Cornelius and his family were an important part of His overall plans. Another fact to consider is that this family received the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is very important.

I hope we remember Cornelius’s faithful devotion to God, which brought him into contact with Peter.

I also hope we can draw inspiration from Cornelius’s example as a Christian.

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