All that we know of Cornelius is contained in the tenth and eleventh chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. He was the first Gentile converted to the Christian faith, along with his household. A centurion was commander of a company of one hundred men in the Roman army, responsible for their discipline, both on the field of battle and in camp. He was a Roman citizen, a military career man, well-paid, and generally noted for courage and competence. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Cornelius was a centurion in the Italian Cohort, the Cohors II Italica Civium Romanorum, a cohort of the Roman army formed of citizens from the province of Italy. Some centurions, such as Cornelius, and those whom we know about from the Gospel narratives, were men of deep religious piety.
Saint Luke the Evangelist, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, considered Cornelius’ conversion momentous for the future of Christianity. He records that it occurred as the result of divine intervention and revelation, and as a response to the preaching of Peter the chief apostle. The experience of Cornelius’ household was regarded as comparable to a new Pentecost, and it was a primary precedent for the momentous decision of the apostolic council, held in Jerusalem a few years later, to admit Gentiles to full and equal partnership with Jewish converts in the household of faith.
According to a later tradition, Cornelius was the second bishop of Caesarea, the metropolitan see of Palestine. Undoubtedly, Cornelius and his household formed the nucleus of the first Church in this important city, a Church that was gathered by Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8:40 and 21:8).
Cornelius is commemorated in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church on February 4 and in the Eastern Churches on September 13.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts
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.