The Bishop of Rome was dead in 304. Diocletian's persecution was in full force. Meeting places were confiscated as well as some of the burial grounds. People were in fear of being caught at Mass or other services and the presbyters were in hiding when not needed. The Christian Church was torn apart. Daily activities could not be conducted and life was interrupted for several years. There was no Bishop for the faithful to rally around. It is said that the deacon, Marcellus, was doing what he could at that time to keep the fatherless flock together.
Diocletian had his troubles, also. His tetrarchy (four caesars) was unstable. The four played against one another and even fought against each other. In a campaign against the Carpi (around the Black Sea) Diocletian developed a minor illness, which got worse. By May 1, 305, the great restorer of the empire abdicated due to health. It is said that Galerius, one of the tetrarchy, persuaded Diocletian, to gain more power. Others took positions of authority as well. It was a year and a half of chaos before Maxentius was declared emperor in October 306. He did not have a firm grip for very long and was often involved in defending himself from the other tetrarchs. He raised money to build memorials and to give bribes to the soldiers to support him did not endear him to the poor of Rome, many of whom were Christian. In the summer of 307, Constantine married Maxentius' sister, Fausta. The following spring, his own father tried to depose him with the garrisons of Rome, but they remained faithful. Then, in the fall, another tetrarch was named ruler of North Africa, an intolerable situation, because, north Africa was a main source of food for the very urban Rome. Maxentius was fighting on all sides.
It took another two years before the Christians were assured that the persecutions were over and that it was safe to come out of hiding. They elected their deacon, Marcellus, as bishop in 307 or 308. He had before him an enormous job of putting the Church of Rome back together on two fronts: First he had to reorganize the parishes, placing a priest in each. Each priest was assigned the duty of preparing the catechumens for baptism, directing the public penances, burying the dead properly and conducting the memorial commemorations of the martyrs. In addition, Marcellus acquired a new burial ground on the Via Salaria, across from the burial grounds of Saint Priscilla.
The second, and more difficult need was the extensive number of Lapsi, those who had left the Faith during the persecutions in order to save themselves. During previous persecutions, those returning to the Church after lapsing were given penances to perform. This time, lead by a man who had apostacized before the persecutions began, the Lapsi demanded being allowed in to communion with the faithful without benefit of penance. This, Marcellus, and the other elders of the Church, could not accept. The Lapsi could not accept penance and violently demanded their "just due". Marcellus did not give in.
Maxentius, the beleagured emperor, had no intention of allowing riots in the streets of his capital city. He ordered Marcellus arrested for instigating riots and disturbing the peace. Marcellus was promptly exiled in either late 308 or very early 309. He died shortly afterwards, possibly from the stress of slave labor. When it was safe to bring his remains back, Pope Marcellus was buried on the grounds of St. Priscilla. In later years, his body was translated to beneath the altar of San Marcello al Corso, in Rome.
Pope Marcellus only reigned about eighteen months, but he left his mark in his steadfastness and organization.
Pope Saint Marcellus, pray for us!