So earlier this week, I was writing this column on St. Marcellinus, and had spent a few hours researching and writing when I suddenly discovered that the Marcellinus mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer is actually a different Marcellinus, who had a companion named Peter. Who knew that “Marcellinus” was such a popular name, right?
As it is, St. Marcellinus was a priest, and St. Peter was an exorcist. Now before you all start thinking about the horror movie, let me explain. The order of “exorcist” was one of the “minor orders” of the Church. It didn’t serve as a ministerial order like the priest, deacon, or bishop, but an exorcist mostly had responsibilities connected to the catechumens (Christians in training). A close equivalent today might be the combination of a baptismal sponsor, a catechist for the RCIA, and a drill sergeant. The exorcists would lay hands on catechumens, pray for them, and make sure they were up to the challenges of the Christian life. In some cases, yes, the exorcists would assist clergy in formal rites of exorcism. This order actually became part of priestly formation, and men were instituted as exorcists on their way to priesthood all the way up the Second Vatican Council!
Anyway, back to Marcellinus and Peter. Not much is known of them other than their martyrdom, which was recounted by Pope Damasus I. However, he himself gave testimony on behalf of the martyrs’ executioner and their jailer (a man named Artemius), both of whom were converted by St. Marcellinus. The companions were martyred in the year 304 during the Great Persecution of Diocletian – incidentally, the same year as the martyrdom of their pope – the other Marcellinus. Confused yet?
Damasus’ testimony goes that the martyrs were led out of the city by the magistrate to a place along the Via Labicana southeast of Rome – out of the way, so as to hide the bodies from the Christian community. Even in the 4th century, it was well known that Christians would gather at the martyrs’ tombs to celebrate Mass on the anniversary of their death – hence our modern practice of saints’ feast days! Even as they were stripped naked, Marcellinus and Peter joyfully carried out their orders to clear the site of their martyrdom from a huge thicket of thorn bushes. When finished, they were beheaded and buried on the spot.
The Romans’ strategy to hide the graves didn’t work too well, as the Christian community soon located them and built a church near the site in the 4th century. Santi Marcellino e Pietro al Laterano was restored several times, but still stands today, and contains the relics of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter.
Incidentally, the ancient catacombs which were built around the graves of the martyrs were only fully excavated in 2006. They were found to be filled with colorful frescos depicting scenes from Scripture. The archaeologists also found the remains of thousands of bodies of early Christians, still wearing the togas they were buried in. Some were the bodies of saints and other Christians of the early Church, but most of the bodies were likely the victims of an ancient epidemic of typhus or smallpox. Interesting stuff!