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Letter of Pope Cornelius to Fabius Bishop of Antioch

251 - 253 AD

Source: Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book VI, 43, 11; Greek text published online by Documenta Catholic Omnia
ὁ ἐκδικητὴς οὖν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου οὐκ ἠπίστατο να πίσκοπον  δεν εναι ἐν καθολικ ἐκκλησ, ν ᾗ οὐκ ἠγνόει, πῶς γάρ; πρεσβυτέρους εἶναι τεσσαρκοντα ἕξ,  διακόνους πτά, ποδιακόνους ἑπτά, κολούθους δύο καὶ τεσσαράκοντα, ἐξορκιστς δ κα 
ἀναγνώστας ἅμα πυλωροῖς δύο καὶ πεντήκοντα, χήρας σὺν θλιβομένοις ὑπὲρ τὰς χιλίας 
, οὓς πάντας ἡ τοῦ δεσπότου χάρις καὶ φιλανθρωπία διατρέφει.
"This [self-styled] avenger of the Gospel then did not know that there should be [only] one bishop in a Catholic church in which - how could he not know? - there are forty-six presbyters; seven deacons; seven subdeacons; forty-two acolytes; exorcists, lectors and doorkeepers altogether fifty-two; widows together with the needy [entrusted to them] more than fifteen hundred, all of whom [that is: all the clergy and the needy?] the grace and generosity of the Lord nourishes."


Writing about Novatus who had himself ordained as another bishop for the city of Rome, Cornelius lists the clergy of the Roman diocese at the time. The number seven for the deacons does not surprise us. This corresponds to an ancient custom that followed the example of the seven deacons appointed for Jerusalem (Acts 6,1-6). Each deacon presumably had a subdeacon and six acolytes allocated for assistance. When Cornelius comes to the widows - whom he lists with the official church personnel! -, he does not know the exact number but he does know that a large number of needy parishioners is entrusted to them. So he says: 'more than fifteen hundred'.

This text has often been mistranslated in English publications. Cornelius does not mention the 'widows' as only part of the persons in distress. The widows were another group ministering in church context, and the persons entrusted to them were probably also listed. The whole list of clergy and people in need are looked after by the Lord, i.e. through the one bishop who is in charge of all of them.

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