Diocletian's terrible persecution had taken its toll. It was reported that within a period of thirty days, sixteen thousand Christians were martyred. The Church in Rome was left scattered and disorganized, and the Holy See remained vacant for over two years. It wasn't until the ascension of Emperor Maxentius and his policy of toleration that a pope could be chosen. Marcellus, a Roman priest during the reign of Marcellinus, was elected.
The new pope was confronted with enormous problems. His first challenge was to reorganize the badly shaken Church. He is said to have accomplished this by dividing Rome into twenty-five parishes, each with its own priest. The next task was more challenging. Once again a pope was faced with the problem of what to do with the many brethren who had compromised their faith during the reign of Diocletian. Marcellus upheld the doctrine of required penance before absolution. The apostates keenly desired readmission to communion, but they violently opposed the harshness of the penance demanded by the rigorist, Marcellus. Riots broke out throughout the city, and even bloodshed, to the point that Emperor Maxentius intervened. He believed that the pontiff was the root of the problem, and in the interest of peace, he banished Marcellus; the pope died a short time later. Apart from persecution, this was the first time that the secular government was known to have interfered with the Church. There is some confusion whether his body was brought back to Rome or whether he was allowed to return to the Holy See before his death. There is no doubt, however, that he was buried in the cemetery of Priscilla on the Via Salaria.
Symbols: Pope with a donkey or horse nearby; pope standing in a stable.