The Conversion of Cornelius


The conversion of Cornelius the Roman centurion was of major importance in the unfolding story of the Christian mission. Paradoxically it also occasioned the transformation of the Christian Jews towards the universal scope of their mission. It was a sea change in their believing experience. Nor did it come about without a great deal of heartache and self-questioning. We recall that after the death and resurrection of Jesus the apostles in Jerusalem, and doubtless their first converts, all went daily to the Temple. They followed their traditional Jewish ritual as they had always done, and as Jesus had done. Their ancient faith involved circumcision, the detailed observance of the Mosaic Law, and all the practices that separated them from others. They had been protected in these practices by the Roman administration. They could keep them all, and especially were exempted from offering the obligatory worship to Caesar as a god. Their very identity as the people of God was secured by this special privilege.

With the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius Peter is faced with a massive dilemma. This centurion declares his complete acceptance of the Christian faith in Jesus. Should he now be forced to observe also the Jewish traditions of circumcision, ritual laws and dietary prescriptions- and would he be allowed to eat at the same table with the Jewish Christian converts? According to the account in the Acts of the Apostles it took a special intervention from heaven to convince Peter that a new day had dawned, and that Gentile Christians were not bound by ritualistic Jewish traditions. No reference is made to this by the convert Jews who later pursued Paul’s Gentile converts, insisting that Paul was wrong, and that all Christian converts had to observe Jewish laws. 

Implications Then

Those Jews feared that if the Law changed for the Gentle converts Jews would cease to be the People of God and would lose their privileged status with all its promises. They might also lose the protection of the Romans and be forced to follow the Roman practices they detested. Paul and his missionary companions could see that there was no chance of evangelising the Gentiles if it meant making them Jews. Eventually at the Council of Jerusalem all accepted that the convert Gentiles were completely free of Jewish customs. To accept Christ was sheer grace, given from heaven, and that was the way to salvation for all. However it took a long time for this to be universally acceptable if it ever was.

The Johannine Situation

When we hear today’s readings from the First Epistle of St John and from the Fourth Gospel the accent falls upon the need to live lovingly in community. There are real divisions in those communities. They had thrown off the yoke of the Jewish law and were refused access to the synagogue. They were persecuted because they professed Jesus as the Messiah and God’s Son- taken as blasphemous by the Jews of the synagogue. To be ousted from there meant losing all the benefits, social and financial which it provided. Add to that the new difficulties that cropped up in the Johannine communities themselves, as to how best to solve authority problems, how to find the right language to express their faith, and how to live with what could be taken as tolerable differences- that demanded a lot of love. Despite all the exhortations there were divisions among these believers and we do not know that they were healed. These are chronicled in the three Johannine epistles and alluded to in the Gospel (9:22 etc.). We see similar problems in the communities founded by St. .Paul. The Corinthians were particularly fractious. And he even called his Galatians ‘stupid’ (3:1). Paul could write beautifully about love (Cf. 1 Cor 13), but he also could write with sarcasm and anger. After all he was only human!

Implications For Today

We should not be surprised in our own time to find divisions in the Catholic household of the faith. We read of them constantly in the media. We know that people get very upset at the way Mass is or is not celebrated. We hear many criticisms of the way catechetics are or are not taught. We read of acerbic exchanges about how to deal with situations involving grave decisions on marriage, ecumenical relationships, amalgamations and closures of parishes, and on social issues. How should one deal with alien political regimes? These questions are major and people respond to them differently in the same community. Attentive to our Scripture readings we should not be surprised at the legitimate differences of opinion on such matters. But we should certainly try to acknowledge these differences with respect and tolerance. 


Most of us have preferences in our religious observances. When we are comfortable with them, and share them with others consistently, there seems no good reason to change them. One of the most unhelpful aspects of modern bureaucracy is the constant chopping and changing of things. Much of it involves filling out reports, checking boxes, seemingly remote from the work we were trained to do, like directly relating with students when we are teachers, with our patients when we are doctors, with the faithful when we are priests, and so on. In the Church too it can be unhelpful always to be expected to keep changing. We seek comfort in our public and private prayers. Over-regimentation is as bad as casual indifference or sloppy perfunctory performances. Both deny true freedom. Reverence and respect and affection all round are always called for and always appreciated. Surely that is love in practice. Unity and pluralism are safeguarded this way. Introducing the Second Vatican Council Pope John XXIII asked for unity in essentials, freedom in things doubtful and charity in everything. The creed is the guide: I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church- fundamental in unity and rich in diversity. Legitimate questions remain but the attitude is right. A happy Sunday to you all.


Rev Richard J .Taylor

Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International

Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK