Soon after the Lord Jesus Christ's Ascension into Heaven, a centurion by the name of Cornelius settled at Caesarea in Palestine, who had lived previously in Thracian Italy. Although he was a pagan, he distinguished himself by deep piety and good deeds, as the holy Evangelist Luke records in Acts 10:1. The Lord did not disdain his virtuous life and led him to the knowledge of truth through the enlightening light of faith in Christ.
Once, Cornelius was at prayer in his home. An angel of God appeared to him and said that his prayer had been heard and accepted by God. The angel commanded him to send people to Joppa to Simon, called Peter. Cornelius immediately fulfilled the command. While those people were on their way to Joppa, the Apostle Peter was at prayer, during which time he had a vision three times of a vessel being lowered down to him, filled with all kinds of beasts and fowl. He heard a voice from Heaven commanding him to eat everything. When the Apostle refused to eat anything unclean, the voice said, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common" (Acts 10:15). Through this vision, the Lord commanded Apostle Peter to preach the Word of God to the pagans. When Peter arrived at the house of Cornelius in the company of those sent to meet him, he was received with great joy and respect by the host together with his kinsmen and comrades.
Cornelius fell down at the feet of the Apostle and requested to be taught the way of salvation. St Peter began to preach about the earthly life of Jesus Christ, about the miracles and signs worked by the Saviour, about His sufferings, His teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven, His death on the Cross, His Resurrection and Ascent into Heaven. By grace, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Cornelius believed in Christ and was Baptized together with all his family. He was the first pagan to receive Baptism. He retired from the world and went preaching the Gospel together with the Apostle Peter, who made him a Bishop.
When Apostle Peter, together with his helpers Sts Timothy and Cornelius, was in the city of Ephesus, he learned of a particularly vigorous idol worship in the city of Skepsis. Lots were drawn to see who would go there, and St Cornelius was chosen. In the city lived a prince by the name of Demetrios, learned in the ancient Greek philosophy, hating Christianity and venerating the pagan gods, in particular Apollo and Zeus. Learning about the arrival of St Cornelius in the city, he immediately summoned him and asked him the reason for his coming. St Cornelius answered that he came to free him from the darkness of ignorance and lead him to knowledge of the True Light. The prince, not comprehending the meaning of what was said, became angry and demanded that he answer each of his questions. When St Cornelius explained that he served the Lord and that the reason for his coming was to announce the Truth, the prince became enraged and demanded that Cornelius offer sacrifice to the idols. The Saint asked to be shown the gods. When he entered the pagan temple, Cornelius turned towards the east and uttered a prayer to the Lord. There was an earthquake, and the temple of Zeus and the idols situated in it were destroyed. All the populace, seeing what had happened, were terrified.
The prince was even more vexed and began to take counsel together with those approaching him, about how to destroy Cornelius. They bound the Saint and took him to prison for the night. At this point, one of his servants informed the prince that his wife and child had perished beneath the rubble of the destroyed temple. After a while, the pagan priest Barbates reported that he heard the voice of the wife and son somewhere in the ruins and that they were praising the God of the Christians. The pagan priest asked that the imprisoned one be released, in gratitude for the miracle worked by St Cornelius, and the wife and son of the prince remained alive.
The joyful prince hurried to the prison declaring that he believed in Christ and asking him to bring his wife and son out of the ruins of the temple. St Cornelius went to the destroyed temple, and through prayer the suffering were freed. After this the prince, and all his relatives and comrades, accepted Baptism. St Cornelius lived for a long time in this city, converted all the pagan inhabitants to Christ, and made Eunomios a Presbyter in service to the Lord. St Cornelius died in old age as a martyr and was buried not far from the pagan temple he destroyed.