What Do We Know About St. Cornelius the Centurion?

For one thing, St. Cornelius was Italian. To all non-Italians reading this article, you're welcome.

(photo: Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, “The Vision of Cornelius the Centurion”, 1664 )

I was at an exploratory meeting for the Sons of Italy at my parish a little bit ago and the topic of naming the chapter came up. The only provision given was that the chapter had to be named after an Italian or Italo-American. 

The men and women assembled in the church hall proffered several Italians but all of them were already taken by other parish chapters.

Having run out of other names, I raised my hand and made a recommendation.

"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. 

"Anyone got a Bible?" the leader asked, unsure if he should put any confidence in some random guy from the audience saying crazy, impossible things like Italians mentioned in the Bible.

I pulled out my tablet and found Acts of the Apostle, Chapter 10 and read aloud:

There was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, who was a captain in the Roman army regiment called "The Italian Regiment." He was a religious man; he and his whole family worshiped God. He also did much to help the Jewish poor people and was constantly praying to God. It was about three o'clock one afternoon when he had a vision, in which he clearly saw an angel of God come in and say to him, "Cornelius!" He stared at the angel in fear and said, "What is it, sir?" The angel answered, "God is pleased with your prayers and works of charity, and is ready to answer you.

It doesn't take a great deal to inflate an Italian's self-perception or his ethnic pride, and I speak from experience when I say this. No less than 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 can't wait to rub this in my Irish friends' faces!"

I love Italian hyperbole.

Despite not many Christians recalling who St. Cornelius is, there's a surprisingly long passage in the New Testament that deals with him.

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.

The Acts of the Apostles describes Cornelius as a man who had abandoned his earlier paganism and came to believe in God through his interactions with Jews he helped through alms and good works. (Acts 10:1).

Cornelius received a vision in which an angel tells him God had heard his prayers and invited him to closer association with Him. The angel instructs the saint to send his envoys to find St. Peter who was at that point, staying with a Christian tanner named Simon in Joppa.

As Cornelius' men make their way to meet Peter, Peter received a vision in which God releases him and all Christians from the strict dietary restrictions of Mosaic Law. (Acts 10:10–16)

When Cornelius' men arrive, Peter realizes that the vision he received referred to the Roman centurion and all other gentiles who wish to convert to the Church. He accompanies Cornelius' men back to Caesarea. When Cornelius sees Peter, he falls at the Pope's feet. Peter, unaccustomed to such formality, commands him to rise. He then teaches Cornelius and his household of Jesus' life, Passion and Resurrection. At that point, the Holy Spirit descends on everyone present and Cornelius and other gentiles speak in tongues and praise God. He and his household then accepted Baptism.

Cornelius was thus the first non-Jew to be accepted into the Church.

This is where Scriptures cease referring to Cornelius. Tradition, however, teaches that Cornelius retired from the army and accompanied Peter as they preached the Gospel. When they entered Ephesus, Peter, Timothy and Cornelius were told of a popular pagan temple in the city of Skepsis. 

Cornelius went to the city alone but when the Prince Demetrius, the leader of the city, himself a pagan scholar of philosophy and who actively hated Christians, learned of the saint's arrival in his city, summoned and interrogated him at the palace. Cornelius replied that he come to free the prince and his city from the ignorant darkness of paganism. 

The prince was furious at the perceived insult but Cornelius pressed onwards and spoke of the Light of Christ. The prince, not being in the mood to convert, demanded Cornelius offer sacrifice to his pagan idols. 

The saint was brought to the temple of Zeus but as soon as he entered, he turned to the east and prayed to God. At that, an earthquake struck the city and the temple crumbled around him terrifying the prince and citizens of the city.

The prince was incensed and had bound Cornelius in the city prison for the night. It was then that the prince was informed that his wife and child had perished in the collapsed temple. 

As the prince grieved for his loss, Barbates, one of the priests of Zeus told the prince that he distinctly heard the voice of the prince's wife and son amidst the destroyed temple's rubble. The pair were loudly praising the God of the Christians. The prince and Barbates ran to the prison begging the saint to free his wife and child. Cornelius arrived at the destroyed temple and the prayers of all present were answered.

At this, Prince Demetrius, his newly rescued family, Barbates and all their relatives and friends asked to be baptized. Upon hearing of the miracle, St. Peter made Cornelius the city's bishop and, together, labored to convert the entire city to Christ. Eunomios, a new convert from Skepsis, was made a presbyter of the Church. St Cornelius died at a venerable age and was buried near the pagan temple he destroyed. 

His feast day is celebrated on February 2, though most Catholics are too busy on that day celebrating Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, also known as Candlemas. Cornelius is the Patron Saint of Soldiers, Benefactors, Philanthropists and Jewish Converts.

The baptism of Cornelius is a fundamentally important event in the history of the Early Church. Prior to him, only Jews had converted to Christianity. 

So, what do we know about St. Cornelius the Centurion?

  • He was the first Gentile to convert to Christianity
  • He was a pious mystic and humanitarian
  • He a high-ranking army officer in the Roman army
  • He had many Jewish friends and through them abandoned his original paganism and was brought to a love of Yahweh.
  • He was personally invited to become Christian by one of God's angels
  • He met and befriended Peter, the first pope
  • He was blessed by the Holy Spirit in the presence of Peter, the Apostles and the first Jewish converts to Christianity
  • Since Peter baptized his entire family/household, this is proof and validity of infant baptism in the first century of the Early Church.
  • He was the first bishop of Caesarea.
  • It was at his meeting when Peter, when he, the first pope, decreed to no longer require Christians to adhere to Mosaic laws of ritual purity. And for all of us who enjoy bacon-wrapped scallops, we should be very grateful.

The newly formed chapter of the Sons of Italy at my parish, though very impressed with their newly-acquired knowledge and freshly pumped-up ethnic pride, ultimately chose against naming themselves after St. Cornelius the Centurion. Apparently, if they chose a living Italian or Italo-American after whom they could name the chapter, that person could help sponsor the group. And though St. Cornelius is great to have on your side, someone's got to pay for the electricity.

There are many advantages to having a Christian and surname both ending with vowels. (Check my byline.) First, you sure to get a nice meal. Second, you get a lot of cousins to play with growing up. Third, you get all of the jokes in Louis Prima's song Zooma Zooma. And fourth, you can rest of your ecclesiastical laurels when you remind Christians that it was one of your paisanos who helped make all of this possible.

To all non-Italians reading this article, you're welcome.