I’m delighted to be back in Rome, where I will be spending the bulk of the summer teaching in the graduate programs at Loyola’s John Felice Center in the Balduina neighborhood of the city and engaging in ongoing research on Vatican and ecumenical responses to the global scourge of human trafficking. One of the great benefits of being here is that when you glance at the week ahead and see that the universal church celebrates the feast of Saints Marcellino and Pietro on June 2, you can shrug and say to yourself: “Well, I suppose I might as well visit their church and catacombs and learn more about them.” And so I did.
Marcellino and Pietro are two Roman martyrs who were beheaded in 304 A.D., during the Diocletian persecutions of Christians shortly before Constantine forever changed the course of church and European history, bringing the community out of the shadows and, for better or worse, into the corridors of imperial power. (By chance, I’m also currently reading about these years via Paul Stephenson’s masterful biography “Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor.”)
When the furious anti-Christian forces were unleashed upon the growing network of believers under Constantine’s predecessor Diocletian, Marcellino, a priest, and Pietro, an exorcist, were among those targeted. Supposedly, they cheerfully cleared the brambles from the field in their place of martyrdom, willingly digging their own graves, a haunting fact that tradition holds led their executioner to eventually convert. The large painting behind the altar in the church named for them on Via Merulana depicts this scene, apparently well before the sword-wielding pagan officer underwent his change of heart. As with many other martyrs, they often appear in iconography with palms, symbols befitting their willingness to shed their blood for David’s Royal Son, “to whom the lips of children, made sweet Hosannas ring.”
The two were buried in an unmarked grave, though a Christian woman was led to find them and seek help from fellow believers to bring their relics to the catacombs to rest in peace with other witnesses and martyrs. Pope Damasus I was devoted to their memory and renamed the catacombs for them. When Constantine legalized Christianity in the empire, he honored the two by building a massive basilica to honor them, and had his mother, Saint Helena, buried there.
Today they are particularly revered in Italy and Germany, and the Roman church that is named for them is the titular parish of Dominican Cardinal Dominik Duka, the archbishop of Prague.
Tertullian memorably said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Without devolving into occultist fascination with the torture and gore of death scenes, or the superstitious superficiality that can arise from tangible contact with the agents and physical remnants of these events (both, to be frank, sometimes temptations in the Italian ecclesial imagination), the witness provided by those willing to stake more than mere words on their faith in Jesus has inspired devotion for millennia.
Authentic faith is not white magic, and if we look at rubbing a skull as the path toward getting the job we desire or falling in love or curing our ills without medication, something is amiss in our journey of discipleship.
Balancing veneration for the communion of saints and intercessory prayer with a trust in God’s providence that abandons ourselves into the Mystery of divine love, instead of seeking to control events as we would have them, seems to me the healthiest and most holistic theological approach to relics and our ancestors in the faith, and is at the essence of what the church has always officially taught about them. Learning from those who paid the ultimate price for their fidelity to living their Christian vocation fearlessly and fully, and invoking their aid in bettering ourselves, can prove to be helpful reminders of where we can each improve, with the help of grace, on the life-long quest toward union with God.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University Chicago.