“In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (Jn 16:33)
One might wonder just how comforting these words from the Lord in today’s Holy Gospel might be if one were faced with the prospect of impending execution. Apparently, they were enough to sustain Sts. Marcellinus and Peter in their hour of trial, for today we celebrate them as martyrs. If you have ever listened to the Roman Canon at Mass you may recognize these names. They are included in the second of the two lists of saints in that Eucharistic Prayer. The Church knows very little about them other than that St. Marcellinus was a priest, St. Peter an exorcist, and that both were executed in the persecutions under Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century. They were much honored by the early Church, even to the point that Constantine built a basilica in their honor.
Catholic historian Dr. Warren Carroll describes Diocletian as a “clear-headed and reflective man” at the time of his accession to the throne of the Roman Empire. Diocletian was not initially interested in persecuting Christians. He rather set his sights on restoring the then decrepit Roman Empire to its former stability and greatness. To this end, he began by overhauling and remodeling the government and much of the economic system. It was his second-in-command in the eastern half of the empire, Galerius, who is believed to have insisted on the need to get rid of Christianity. Historian Henry Chadwick reports that Diocletian was finally convinced when he attended a pagan sacrifice at which the pagan priests blamed their inability to read the signs on the entrails of the animals on the presence of some Christians there who had made the Sign of the Cross. What came to be called the “Great Persecution” soon followed. It began in the year AD 303 and varied in intensity in different parts of the empire. Throughout its duration in the east, Galerius remained its chief driving force. Diocletian tried to refrain from bloodshed as much as he could, but for various reasons was gradually led to increase the severity of the penalties for those refusing to sacrifice to the gods. Perhaps not coincidentally as Carroll notes, Diocletian had a mental collapse early in 304. He became withdrawn from public affairs, leaving their direction largely in the hands of Galerius. In 305, Galerius forced Diocletian to abdicate and took complete control of the government. It was then that the persecution became acute.
In contrast to Diocletian, who succumbed to the world and consequently died bereft of even the worldly goods he once had and is remembered most for the slaughter associated with his name, Sts. Marcellinus and Peter took courage in Christ and conquered through Him. Though they lost their lives, they saved them for eternal life. It was not mere words that gave them strength and courage, however. As John tells us earlier in the sixteenth chapter of his Gospel, Christ promised to send His disciples the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, who would guide them “into all truth” (Jn 16:13). It was by the power of the Holy Spirit alive within them that the martyrs remained true to Christ. The same Holy Spirit is still present and working in the Church today in each of the baptized. He continues to give the courage to overcome present-day troubles.
Image: Albrecht Durer, Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand