The story of Cornelius in the Book of Acts, chapter 10 is a dramatic illustration of how deeply God wants to reach out to everyone.
It was also dramatic proof to the apostles that new life through Jesus was not to be limited to Jews who believed in him. New life in Christ was available to everyone.
Cornelius was a professional soldier stationed in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine. Luke describes Cornelius and his whole family as being devout, generous with the poor, and God-fearing (Acts 10:2). It seems, too, that their devout way of life extended beyond their biological family and included the household servants as well as some soldiers under Cornelius’ command. Cornelius was clearly an impressive man: prayerful, generous, and open-hearted. So why would he and his family need conversion?
One day, as Cornelius was praying, God sent an angel to him. Did God send this angel because he saw how hungry Cornelius was for more? Was it because of the way Cornelius respected his servants and cared for the poor? Probably it was a combination of both reasons. After all, the angel told Cornelius: “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4). The angel then told him to send for Peter and to listen to what he had to say.
As in so many places in Scripture, the story of Cornelius shows that the grace of God stands behind every conversion. The angel’s appearance to Cornelius emphasizes that God will move at his own time and at his own pace. But this story also highlights both a remarkable mystery and an obvious reality. The obvious reality is that our prayers and acts of love can help to make us open to God when he is ready to act. But the remarkable mystery is that through these very same acts of prayer and love, it seems that we ourselves can move God to act.
Within twenty-four hours of Cornelius’ vision, Peter had his own vision while he was praying on the roof of a friend’s house. Just as Peter was puzzling over this vision, which included a “feast” of animals deemed unfit for Jews to eat, a delegation sent by Cornelius arrived at his front door. As the men were about to ask Peter to come with them, Peter felt the Holy Spirit encourage him to join them. (He probably needed this spiritual nudge before he would entrust himself to a Roman soldier!)
Filled with expectation and enthusiasm, Cornelius invited all of his friends, neighbors, and relatives to join him in listening to Peter. What’s amazing is that he didn’t even know what Peter was going to say. He simply reasoned that if the whole event had been engineered by an angel, then something very special must be on the way. So he wanted others to have a chance to experience whatever God was going to do. Cornelius’ eager disposition—one of excitement, expectation, and great openness—gave God the freedom to work this miracle of conversion.
God answered Cornelius’ prayers.
As Peter began to preach the gospel, the Spirit moved powerfully, and everyone in the house experienced the presence of God and turned toward Jesus in their hearts. Overwhelmed by the Spirit, these Gentiles began praising God and even speaking in tongues. It was just like Peter’s experience at the first Pentecost! We might even say this was “Pentecost II,” a Pentecost for the Gentiles.
Some initial conversions—like St. Augustine’s—are dramatic events in which a person turns away from a life immersed in sin and self-centeredness and experiences a complete turnaround. Other conversions—like Cornelius’—have less to do with deep repentance and are focused more on coming to know who Jesus is and experiencing how much he loves us.
But regardless of the specifics, each conversion is all about experience and membership. For Cornelius and his family, the experience focused on a powerful outpouring of Jesus’ love in their hearts—an outpouring of grace and spiritual gifts that moved them to turn to the Lord in faith. And the membership was evident as Peter realized that even these Gentiles were called to become members of the Church.
But God did not limit his work to Cornelius and his household. He also had some surprises in store for Peter. It seems that we always receive more than we give when we respond to the Lord, and Peter’s trip to Cornelius’ house was no exception. Just as God was pouring out his Spirit upon the Gentiles, he was also furthering Peter’s conversion.
God was expanding Peter’s horizons and showing him that the Gentiles were just as worthy of receiving salvation as the Jews. In this “Second Pentecost,” Peter saw Gentiles—whom Jews had always considered unclean and unworthy—filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues and prophesying just as Peter and the others had done in Jerusalem. Here, in far-off Caesarea, God revealed a plan to Peter that was far greater than Peter had known just a few moments earlier.
Peter took a step of faith when he obeyed the Spirit and went to see Cornelius. He took an even larger step when he actually went into Cornelius’ house. It was unlawful for a Jew to enter a Gentile home. Now, God was asking Peter to take a giant step of faith and accept that even Gentiles were redeemed by the cross of Christ and should be welcomed as members of the Church.
This was a tremendous challenge to Peter, and he could accept it only as the Holy Spirit opened his eyes and helped him embrace this new path. In a similar way, there are times in our lives when God seeks to stretch our minds and unveil more of his plan to us. When this happens, we need to try our best to flow with our new understanding—even when it seems opposed to our preconceived notions and beliefs. As an example, let’s look at the experience of a successful surgeon named Mark.
One day, as he was heading home from his office, Mark saw a poor, homeless man sitting near a street corner begging. Normally, he would pass by such a sight without doing anything, but this time, he gave the man some money. The image of that poor man stayed in Mark’s memory as a stark contrast to his own life. Over the next few months, Mark started giving more to the poor—more of his money, more of his time, and more of his heart. Within a year, he felt moved to reduce his medical practice to part time and open a health clinic in a depressed part of town. Today, ten years later, Mark makes far less money than he did before, but he doesn’t really miss his old life. Now, whenever he reflects on all that has happened, Mark is amazed at how God used one little encounter with a homeless man to set him on a new and unexpected path.
Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit prior to any repentance on their part and prior to their baptism. This surprising sequence of events shows that there is no one set pattern for conversion. God works in many different ways, and as far as he is concerned, the results—a faith-filled person who loves Jesus—are far more critical than the process.
Earlier, we asked why such a good and holy family as Cornelius’ needed to experience conversion. The answer is that without Jesus, we really don’t know the width, height, and depth of God’s love. We don’t know what it means to be reconciled to God through Jesus. We don’t know Eucharist and communion with Christ. We don’t know Jesus as our Lord, our Savior, and our Brother.
Based on what we know from Scripture, we might even say that Cornelius and his family could have been saved whether Peter had come or not. As Pope John Paul II has said, “The mystery of salvation extends its boundaries beyond Christians.” But God wants to give us so much more than an initial experience of salvation. He wants us to enjoy an intimate relationship with Jesus. He wants to shower us with all his promises and fill us with nothing less than divine life, in union with all the other members of the body of Christ.
This was the answer God gave to Cornelius and his family. Prior to Peter’s arrival, they knew, but their knowledge was limited. They may have even had some spiritual experiences, but they were only partial. Likewise for us, we can have a relationship with Jesus and live in the Spirit each day, or we can settle for a limited version of everything that Jesus wants to give us.
Conversion is a grace that motivates us to turn from sin and give ourselves to Jesus—and then to continue turning to him, more and more deeply. Let us all pray now and ask Jesus to pour the grace of conversion upon our families, our friends, and our own lives. Let us ask him to give us the grace of faith so that we would all enjoy love and fellowship with Jesus in every way possible.
Today and every day, tell yourself in prayer, “I want to live not for the world but for my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I want to turn away from everything that is evil and toward everything that will open up the doors of grace and allow Jesus’ light to shine upon me.”