St Marcellus I

Pope and Martyr (entered heaven this day in 309)

Dear Mac,

Your shortsightedness distresses me, though it doesn’t surprise me.  All human beings generally tend to view their own times as the pinnacle of human history, and thus they either ignore or belittle the sufferings (or achievements) of past ages.  So I’m not surprised to hear you excoriating the horrible state of affairs in the Church today.  But I am distressed by your reaction to the corruption and mediocrity you decry.  Clearly your emotions are getting the better of you; I can think of no other explanation for your impious criticisms of the current and recent popes, and of the latest Council.  You blame the Church’s current troubles on their negligence.  Arrogant nephew.  By that faulty logic, there ought to be periods of diminished troubles in the history of the Church, corresponding to the presence of particularly able Popes.  If you open your narrow mind to look at a bit of history, you will see that such is not the case.  Take today’s saint, for example.

We don’t know anything about Marcellus’s life before he was raised to the papacy, but we know a lot about his short tenure in Peter’s See.  In 303 AD, five years before he was elected, the Emperor Diocletian unleashed the last and greatest persecution against Christianity.  It was so widespread, systematic, and violent, that the Church all but crumbled under its merciless hand.  Throngs of Christians abandoned their faith, bishops and priests were scattered and sent into hiding, so that the sacraments and teaching of the faith were to be had only in fits and starts.  By the time Pope Marcellinus died, the disorder was so acute that the diocese of Rome went without a bishop for more than a year, which meant that the Church as a whole went without a pope for the same amount of time.

When Marcellus was finally elected Pope, in a brief lull in the persecutions, he was faced with a Church in utter shambles.  He had to reconstitute the clergy, reorder Church governance, and most difficult of all reconcile the thousands of lapsed Christians who now desired to come back into the Church.  The problem of these “lapsi” threw the major dioceses of the Empire into conflict.  The Christians who had remained faithful in the face of persecution demanded that the lapsi do penance in order to be reconciled, but the lapsi resisted.  Pope Marcellus, as gently as possible, urged the lapsi to accept their due penance in harmony with the tradition of the Church.  His insistence was unpopular among many, and the conflict between the two sides erupted into violence, with Christians murdering Christians in the streets.  The rage was so severe that the Emperor (Maxentius) felt compelled to intervene by exiling Pope Marcellus, whom he considered the source of the conflict, and condemning him to forced labor.  As a new wave of persecution began to break over the Empire, St Marcellus died a miserable death, unable to sustain the physical strains of his punishments (thus he is considered a martyr).

Now, do you really think the sufferings of the Church today are that much worse than those of Marcellus’s time?  Certainly they are horrible, but was life under Diocletian a Christian cake walk?  Before you go blaming popes and councils for everybody’s sins and arrogantly declaring yourself arbiter of ecclesiastical welfare, review your history.  After all, the ancients didn’t call the study of history “life’s tutor” for nothing.

Your distressed uncle,


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