October 30, 2010

In Memory of Saint Marcellus

by Tobias Winright(Feast of Saint Marcellus)

This week the Jesuit Catholic magazine, America, posted video clips of US soldiers talking about conscience in the military. Pacifist and just war Christians respectively should support both conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection. While the former is legally recognized in the US at this time, the latter ought to be also, especially if such a stance is rooted in deeply held theological and philosophical beliefs and practices, too.

Thinking about this today reminded me that October 30th is the Feast of Saint Marcellus, who was martyred on this date in 298 C.E. for refusing to continue to serve in Caesar's army. Marcellus was a centurion, or captain, in the Roman legion of Trajan, which was stationed at Tangier in North Africa at the time. During the celebration of the emperor's birthday by the soldiers, Marcellus stood up and declared in front of the company, “I serve Jesus Christ the everlasting King.” In addition to his confession of faith, Marcellus cast aside his soldier's belt, with its sword, and his staff, which was a sign of his authority as a centurion. “With this,” he added, “I cease to serve your emperors, and I disdain to worship your wooden and stone gods, who are deaf and dumb idols.”

Indeed, one of the primary reasons that Christians during the first few centuries refused military service had to do with the idolatry associated with being in the Roman army. The festivities and sacrifices attached to the birthday party for the emperor thus occasioned Marcellus’ coming out of the closet as a Christian who cannot sin against his Lord Jesus by participating in idolatrous activities toward Caesar. “If such be the conditions of service that men are compelled to sacrifice to the gods and emperors,” Marcellus boldly stated, “then behold, I throw away the staff and belt; I renounce the standards and refuse to serve.”

The soldiers who witnessed his conscientious objection to continued service in the military quickly placed him under arrest and reported him to Anastasius Fortunatus, prefect of the legion. In their eyes his action was blasphemous and treasonous. After appearing before Anastasius Fortunatus and reiterating his allegiance to Jesus Christ, Marcellus was taken before Aurelius Agricolanus, the vicar to the prefect of the praetorium guard.

When asked by Agricolanus whether he had said these things, Marcellus answered, “I said it.” And when Agricolanus inquired about what madness provoked him to declare his allegiance to Christ, Marcellus replied, “There is no madness in those who fear the Lord.” When then questioned about why he cast aside his arms, Marcellus simply explained, “For it is not fitting for a Christian man who serves Christ the Lord to serve human powers.” Afterwards, Marcellus was sentenced to death and executed by beheading.

This account of Marcellus' martyrdom first came to my attention a decade-and-a-half ago while I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame. I served as a graduate assistant for Professor John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian, helping him with his course on Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution. The story of Marcellus was required reading for his students, and Yoder felt that it was important to let them also know that Notre Dame has a Marcellus connection. Indeed, he asked me to find more information and documentation in the archives about this.

Unbeknownst to many of the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame, Marcellus is one of three saints whose bones are under the altar in the Sacred Heart Basilica on the Notre Dame campus. The founder of Notre Dame, Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C., had Marcellus’ relics, including either his skull or a fragment of it, transported across the Atlantic and placed at the base of the altar.

In 1996 Yoder encouraged some of his colleagues and students to brainstorm about how Notre Dame could honor the saint in 1998, the 17th centennial of his martyrdom. However, after Yoder's untimely death in December of 1997, nothing materialized with regard to Marcellus at Notre Dame until Michael Baxter revived the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which issues an annual Marcellus Award to someone who takes a public stand for conscience when it comes to war and peace.

In view of the unjustified wars of our day, St. Marcellus, pray for us.

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