Pope Marcellus I

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Pope Saint Marcellus I, pope from May 308 to 309, succeeded Marcellinus, after a considerable interval, most probably in May or June 308.

Under Maxentius he was banished from Rome in 309 on account of the tumult caused by the severity of the penances he had imposed on Christians who had lapsed under the recent persecution. He died the same year, being succeeded by Eusebius. His relics are under the altar of San Marcello al Corso, in Rome. His feast day is commemorated on January 16.

Contents

Reign as Pope

For some time after the death of Marcellinus in 304 the Diocletian persecution continued with unabated severity. After the abdication of Diocletian in 305, and the accession in Rome of Maxentius to the throne of the Caesars in October of the following year, the Christians of the capital again enjoyed comparative peace. Nevertheless, nearly two years passed before a new Bishop of Rome was elected. Then in 308, according to the Catalogus Liberianus, Pope Marcellus first entered on his office: "Fuit temporibus Maxenti a cons. X et Maximiano usque post consulatum X et septimum"[1]. This abbreviated notice is to be read: "A cons. Maximiano Herculio X et Maximiano Galerio VII [308] usque post cons. Maxim. Herc. X et Maxim. Galer. VII [309]"[2]. At Rome, Marcellus found the Church in the greatest confusion. The meeting-places and some of the burial-places of the faithful had been confiscated, and the ordinary life and activity of the Church was interrupted. Added to this were the dissensions within the Church itself, caused by the large number of weaker members who had fallen away during the long period of active persecution and later, under the leadership of an apostate, violently demanded that they should be readmitted to communion without doing penance.

According to the Liber Pontificalis, Marcellus divided the territorial administration of the Church into twenty-five districts (tituli), appointing over each a presbyter, who saw to the preparation of the catechumens for baptism and directed the performance of public penances. The presbyter was also made responsible for the burial of the dead and for the celebrations commemorating the deaths of the martyrs. The pope also had a new burial-place, the Cœmeterium Novellœ on the Via Salaria (opposite the Catacomb of St. Priscilla), laid out. The Liber Pontificalis (ed. Duchesne, I, 164) says: "Hic fecit cymiterium Novellae via Salaria et XXV titulos in urbe Roma constituit quasi diœcesis propter baptismum et pœnitentiam multorum qui convertebantur ex paganis et propter sepulturas martyrum". At the beginning of the seventh century there were probably twenty-five titular churches in Rome; even granting that, perhaps, the compiler of the Liber Pontificalis referred this number to the time of Marcellus, there is still a clear historical tradition in support of his declaration that the ecclesiastical administration in Rome was reorganized by this pope after the great persecution.

The work of the pope was, however, quickly interrupted by the controversies to which the question of the readmittance of the lapsi into the Church gave rise. As to this, we gather some light from the poetic tribute composed by Damasus in memory of his predecessor and placed over his grave (De Rossi, "Inscr. christ. urbis Romæ", II, 62, 103, 138; cf. Idem, "Roma sotterranea", II, 204–5). Damasus relates that Marcellus was looked upon as a wicked enemy by all the lapsed, because he insisted that they should perform the prescribed penance for their guilt. As a result serious conflicts arose, some of which ended in bloodshed, and every bond of peace was broken. At the head of this band of dissenters was an apostate who had denied the Faith even before the outbreak of persecution. The tyrannical Maxentius had the pope seized and sent into exile. This took place at the end of 308 or the beginning of 309 according to the passages cited above from the Catalogus Liberianus, which gives the length of the pontificate as no more than one year, six (or seven) months, and twenty days. Marcellus died shortly after leaving Rome, and was venerated as a saint.

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