St. Marcellinus - The New Persecution

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The next pope was to see the end of the long period of peace and the start of a most violent persecution, the persecution of Diocletian.

St. Marcellinus was a Roman, the son of Projectus. When he first became pope, Diocletian was already on the throne, but he had not yet drawn the sword against the Christians. Indeed, at first under the influence of his wife, Prisca, and his daughter, Valeria, the despot left the Christians fairly free. The peace, however, had caused Christianity to grow and grow. This provoked a fierce reaction among the pagans, and they had a leader in no less a dignitary than the Caesar Galerius.

According to Lactantius, the historian of the persecution, Diocletian was first angered by the Christians when the augurs or soothsayers told him that they could not prophesy because Christians made the sign of the cross. The Emperor promptly ordered all Christians to apostatize or get out of the army. This was in 302. The next year at a conference in Nicomedia, Galerius urged the Emperor to extend himself against the Christians. Diocletian asked the opinion of the oracle of Apollo at Miletus. Naturally, the oracle saw eye to eye with Galerius. But Diocletian started easily. At first he ordered the confiscation of Church property and the destruction of Christian books. When a rash Christian actually tore down the imperial edict right under the imperial nose at Nicomedia and two very convenient fires broke out in the imperial palace, Diocletian, enraged, took off the gloves. It was apostatize or die, and soon blood was streaming.

The persecution hit Rome with disastrous results for the historians. The papal archives were seized and destroyed. The famous Cemetery of Calixtus was saved by the Christians, who blocked up the entrance.

Pope St. Marcellinus was accused by Donatist heretics of having handed over the sacred books. Some went so far as to accuse him of having sacrificed to idols. The Liber Pontificalis repeats this but adds that St. Marcellinus repented and died a martyr. Actually it is not certain either that St. Marcellinus weakened or that he was a martyr. St. Augustine denies openly that the Pope had weakened, and there is no conclusive evidence of his having been killed.

At any rate, St. Marcellinus did die a confessor of Christ in 304. According to the Liber Pontificalis, after his head was cut off, his body, along with those of other martyrs, was left lying on the street for twenty- six days to terrify the Christians. Then a priest buried the Pope in the Cemetery of Priscilla. His feast is kept on April 26.


Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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