Marcellus lived during the time of the Emperor Diocletian, a great persecutor of Christians. In the year 305, Diocletian abdicated and Pope Marcellus was elected three years later in 308.
When Marcellus took office, the Church in Rome was in chaos. Through the terrible persecutions, churches had been confiscated and some burial places of Christians defiled. All Church activities had been interrupted and there was great confusion. There were also divisions among the faithful and many whose faith had grown lukewarm during the persecutions had fallen away.
Marcellus took charge right away and devised a plan to renew the Church. He divided the territorial administration of the Church into 25 districts and appointed a priest over each to prepare the catechumens for baptism and direct the performance of public penances. The priests were also responsible for the Christian burials of the faithful dead and for celebrations commemorating the deaths of martyrs.
Though the faith was being rekindled among many through the actions of this new pope, controversy soon arose. Those who had fallen away amidst the great persecutions wanted to return to the Church now that the persecutions had abated. Pope Marcellus was glad to have them return, but insisted that they first perform public penance for having denied their faith. This did not sit well with many and soon serious conflicts arose and in some cases blood was shed. Fanning the flame of these uproars was the tyrannical Maxentius who finally had the pope arrested and sent into exile.
Marcellus I reigned for only 18 months and died shortly after being sent into exile.
There is another account concerning the end of Marcellus’s life. According to a fifth-century writing, Passio Marcelli, Maxentius was so enraged by the actions of Pope Marcellus in restoring the Church that he demanded that he make an offering to the gods. When the pope refused, Marcellus had him put to work as a slave, attending horses. According to this account, he died while serving in this menial occupation. This story, however, is probably legendary with little truth other than the account of his restoration of the Church.
We pray today, Lord, that there will always be defenders of the truth in Your Church, ready to restore where Satan has demolished. We thank you for Pope St. Marcellus and his work within the Church, and all his successors who have stood firm in the face of adversity. Amen.
Other Saints We Remember Today
- Our Lady of Refuge
image: Artaud de Montor (1772–1849), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons