Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

When Peter Met Cornelius, History Changed. (Columns)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

When Peter Met Cornelius, History Changed. (Columns)

Article excerpt

Feb. 2 is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which is celebrated not only by the Roman Catholic church but also by the Orthodox churches, the churches of the Anglican Communion, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

It marks the event at which the infant Jesus was brought to the Temple, and Mary was purified following childbirth in order to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic law. Simeon and the prophetess Anna greeted them: Simeon, with the prayer that came to be known as the "Nunc Dimittis" ("Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation"), and Anna, with a prayer of thanksgiving to God on behalf of all those "who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem."

But Feb. 2 also happens to be the feast day of Cornelius the Centurion, an officer of the imperial Roman army who was among the first Gentiles to be converted to Christ, according to the Acts of the Apostles.

Cornelius is described by the scriptures as a devout man who feared God, gave alms generously and prayed constantly. He and the Apostle Peter had simultaneous visions that eventually brought them together at Cornelius' home in Caesarea. While Peter was speaking there, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word." Peter was so "astounded" that the gift of the Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles as well as the Jews that he readily acceded to Cornelius' wish to be baptized. Before doing so, however, Peter asked the crowd, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?" Not hearing any objections, he baptized Cornelius and his whole household.

Peter's act of pastoral wisdom and courage, however, precipitated the first major crisis in the history of the church. When some of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem learned of what had happened in Caesarea, they sharply criticized his behavior.

Upon his return to Jerusalem, Peter was directly confronted by his accusers. "You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them," they charged. Peter attempted at once to explain what he had done, "step by step," and why he had done it.

He told them of a vision that he had while at prayer in Joppa. …

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