Two Popes of the early Church sit on opposite corners of the portico ceiling of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Today, we celebrate their feast days. The two men served as Popes two centuries apart. What they share is that their pontificates occurred during times of great torture and persecution for professing Christians under Roman rule. Reflecting on the lives of Popes Cletus and Marcellinus puts into perspective the trials the faithful now are facing.
To be a Pope in the first three centuries after Christ was to face the prospect of death by Roman authorities. Pope Cletus was the third pope and reigned from 76 to 88. Marcellinus was Pope from 296 to 304. Cletus, like St. Peter before him, was martyred. Marcellinus himself was not martyred; instead he died a natural death in an era when scores of Christians, including St. George, were murdered for their faith. Thanks be to God, we live in a world where, with a few notable exceptions, Christians are not being killed for their beliefs. But the Church still faces enemies, both in the secular world, as well as from sinners within our own ranks.
The first persecutions of Christians happened in Rome, a generation after Christ, under the reign of Nero. This was several years before Cletus became Pope. The tyrant, who killed his own mother and eventually committed suicide, arrested and tortured Christians in Rome. Some were crucified. Others were burned alive. Their bodies were eaten by dogs. It is stunning to consider that just six years before Cletus became pope, a new Emperor, Titus, destroyed the City of Jerusalem, then the hub of Christianity. Until then, Christians were considered a sect of the Jews. Cletus was a Greek ordained by St. Peter. As Pope, St. Cletus ordained at least 25 priests. Here was a man of great faith who knew the dangers he faced by leading the Church.
As for St. Marcellinus, he died in 304, one year after St. George was martyred during the great Diocletian persecution. During this persecution, Roman authorities confiscated the Callistus Catacomb, which for 100 years had been the official cemetery of the Church of Rome. Martyrs and Popes had been buried there. Christians blocked the main entrances to the catacomb to protect the tombs. It is hard to imagine living and dying in such a time.
Sts. Cletus and Marcellinus’s lives tell us that, as improbable as it seems, the Church is indestructible, no matter the filth within the Church or the attacks from outside Her. We must continue to pray for Pope Benedict XVI, for the children damaged by priest-criminals, and, yes, for the souls of their predators, too.
May your continual pity, O Lord, cleanse and defend Your Church; and, because without you she cannot endure in safety, may she ever be governed by Your bounty. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.