Marcellinus and Peter were Roman martyrs during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian. Both Marcellinus and Peter were members of the clergy of the city of Rome. Marcellinus was a presbyter (priest) and Peter was an exorcist. (Prior to 1975, candidates to the priesthood were first ordained to a succession of minor orders which included acolyte, lector and exorcist. Nowadays, seminarians and diaconal candidates are still admitted to the minor orders of lector and acolytes, although their duties have largely been delegated to laypeople. Since the Council of Trent, the power to exorcise has been reserved to priests.)
Marcellinus and Peter are commemorated in the Second Intercession of the Roman Canon, known today as the First Eucharistic Prayer. The canon commemorates the “holy Apostles and martyrs.” The martyrs mentioned include people from all states of life in the Church: popes (the first four plus notables such as Sts. Cornelius, Alexander I and Xystus II), bishops (Sts. Ignatius of Antioch and Cyrian of Carthage), priests (St. Marcellinus), deacons (Sts. Stephan and Laurence), exorcists (St. Peter), and both laymen (Sts. Cosmos and Damian; John and Paul; and Chyrsogonus) and laywomen, both virgins (Sts. Agnes, Agatha, Lucy, Cecilia and Anastasia) and matrons (Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas).
Honored by Damasus
Like many of the saints commemorated in the Roman Canon, Marcellinus and Peter were commemorated in an elogium written by Pope St. Damasus I and placed over their tomb. Many of the martyrs commemorated by Damasus in his elogia were either connected in some way to the papacy of Damasus or Damasus himself personally. For example, Damasus was consecrated as pope in a basilica dedicated to St. Laurence, in whose honor Damasus composed a number of epigraphs. In the case of Marcellinus and Peter, in the elogium Damasus composed for them, he states that “as a boy” that Marcellinus and Peter’s executioner told him the story of their martyrdom. The executioner was baptized by Pope Julius I, who had been the predecessor of Damasus’ own predecessor Liberius. St. Jerome wrote that Damasus was “about eight years old” when he died in A.D. 384, which places his birth sometime in A.D. 304/5. Thus, in the lifetime of Damasus, the Church went from viciously persecuted minority under Diocletian to the state religion of the Empire with the promulgation of the Edict of Thessalonica in A.D. 382.
The primary goal of the epigrammatic program of Damasus was to reclaim various locations in the city of Rome. A significant rigorist minority opposed the election of Damasus as pope by electing an antipope named Ursicinus and continued to oppose Damasus throughout his pontificate, despite imperial rebuke. (Ursicinus actually outlived Damasus) A significant part of this conflict, particularly at the beginning, was the capture and occupation of strategic geographic locations in the city, such as the tomb of St. Agnes. By placing memorials to the martyrs, that included his own name, throughout the city, Damasus regained control of the city from the schismatics, in a way that would last long after Damasus himself died. At the same time, with the loss of paganism’s status as state religion, Damasus saw an opportunity to replace the pagan monuments and memorials in the city with Christian ones, turning Rome into a Christian capital.
The Testimony of Witnesses
However, it is also important to remember that being eighty at the time of his death, Damasus was most likely one of the very few for whom the Great Persecution was still within “living memory.” Since St. Luke composed his Gospel, the story of salvation has been passed on “by the testimony of witnesses.” Damasus knew that it would be very soon that no one, eyewitnesses or those to whom they had passed on their testimony, would be alive and the Persecution might be forgotten. To prevent this, and ensure that the martyrs were remembered for generations to come, Damasus composed the epigraphs for which he is famous, and probably the Canon of the Mass as well. And while there is no way to prove this with any degree of historical certainty, I believe that he was inspired to do this by his own experience of having heard the story of the martyrdom of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter from the man who carried it out and thus had firsthand experience.