Friday, April 26, 2024

The Legend of Pope Marcellinus

Marcellinus ruled the Roman Church for nine years and four months (really 296-304). By the order of Diocletian and Maximian (during the last and greatest Roman persecution, 303-6), he was seized and brought to sacrifice, and when he did not agree, and for this had to undergo torments of various kinds, out of fear of suffering he offered two grains of incense in sacrifice. This was a cause of great rejoicing for the unfaithful, but great sadness struck the faithful. However, when the head is weak, the members arise strong and take little account of the threats of princes. Then the faithful came to meet the supreme pontiff, and reproved him very greatly, and he, seeing this, submitted himself to be judged in a council of bishops. They said to him, “God forbid that the supreme pontiff be judged by anyone, but undertake your own case, and judge yourself from your own mouth.”

And he, repenting, groaned very much and deposed himself. but nevertheless, all the crowd reelected him . And when the emperors heard this, they had him seized again, and since he would not sacrifice for any reason, they ordered him to be decapitated; and again the wrath of the enemy grew, so that within one month, 17,000 Christians were killed.

An illustration of the story recounted here, from a French translation of the Golden Legend of Bl. Jacopo da Voragine, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Français 244. The confusion that surrounds this legend is amply demonstrated by the fact that Pope Marcellus is shown in the foreground as he is about to be beheaded, even though this is not how he died, as the Golden Legend itself states very clearly.
Now when Marcellinus was going to be beheaded, he declared himself unworthy of Christian burial, and therefore he excommunicated all those who should presume to bury him; for which reason, his body remained unburied for thirty-five days. After this, the blessed Apostle Peter appeared to his successor Marcellus, saying, “My brother Marcellus, why do you not bury me?” To whom he answered, “Were you not buried long ago, my lord?” But the Apostle replied, “I consider myself as unburied, so long as I shall see Marcellinus unburied.” To this, Marcellus answered, “Do you not know, my lord, that he anathematized any who might bury him?” To which Peter answered, “Is it not written, ‘he who humbles himself shall be exalted’? Go then, and bury him at my feet.” And he immediately went and praiseworthily fulfilled these orders.
Thus far the Golden Legend, which although it was not an official liturgical book, was very often read in the Divine Office in the Middle Ages. And indeed, whatever version of the story was read, it was widely believed and accepted for many centuries that Pope Marcellinus had in fact offered incense to the Roman gods under persecution, but then repented and suffered martyrdom, for the sake of which he is venerated as a Saint, and his feast kept today. The story is told in similar terms in the breviary according to the Use of the Roman Curia, the version of the Divine Office used by the Popes themselves before the council of Trent, which states flat out that “Marcellinus was led forth to offer incense, and did this.”
The legend of St Marcellinus in a Roman breviary printed at Venice in 1481; the statement about his yielding to the persecutors and offering incense is in the middle of the second lesson, in the lower part of the left-hand column.
Moreover, when the Roman Office was revised after the Council of Trent, and published by Pope St Pius V in 1568, the story was revised to include material first popularized by the Donatist heretics in Africa, who believed that if a cleric yielded to the persecutors, his orders were effectively nullified, along with his ability to legitimately impart the sacraments. This version claims to identify the specific location of the council before which Marcellinus had appeared, a town called Sinuessa (about 93 miles to the south-east of Rome). It is now recognized that no such council ever happened, and the story in the breviary was later revised to its current form, which says that Marcellinus was a victim of calumny.

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