In this paper I want to consider two saints and martyrs who lived around the same time in the 3rd century. The first is Maximilian in whose time the Roman army was largely recruited from volunteers but sons of soldiers were obliged to serve. Maximillian’s father, Victor, presented him for recruitment. A recruit had to be measured for his equipment and his details taken. Maximilian declined to cooperate stating that, as a Christian, he was unable to serve in the army. This young whippersnapper was ignored and it was ordered that he should be recruited in the normal way, and that he should be given the military seal as a sign of his service. He still refused to be recruited despite repeated efforts to persuade him to proceed voluntarily. The proconsul Dion tried again to persuade Maximilian to accept the seal but he threatened to break it saying that he could bear only the seal of Christ.
Finally Dion explained that Christians do indeed serve in the army, even as bodyguards for Diocletian and Maximian the emperors, but Maximilian replied that they do as they believe but he could not do what he believes is wrong. Dion’s patience at an end, he gave Maximilian a choice, serve or die. Maximilian stated that his soul will not die but will live with Christ. He was condemned for disloyalty and executed in 295.
The second saint is Marcellus the Centurion. It was the celebration of the birthday of the dual emperors Diocletian and Maximian, a most illustrious occasion. Marcellus astounded his brethren by removing his military belt, proclaiming that he was a soldier of Jesus Christ and would henceforth cease to serve the Emperors, and threw them to the ground in front of the legion’s standards, adding fuel to the fire by declaring he despised their gods of wood and stone which were no more than deaf and dumb images.
Fortunatus explained he could not conceal this outburst but must report it to the Emperors and to Caesar. When the official report was later read Marcellus was asked if he indeed wanted to discard his badge of allegiance and his arms. He confirmed that he accepted the stated facts but as a Christian he fought for Christ and not for the “armies of the world”. Marcellus was found to have disgraced himself by renouncing his military oath and using expressions “lacking in self control” and was condemned to death by the sword in 298.
Here we have two saints from points in early Christian history very close together who had to deal with the dilemma faced by many Christians throughout history concerning openly declaring their faith. Marcellus trapped by his position as a serving soldier and Maximilian by the custom of the time. They will have been well aware of the likely outcome, which must have been a heavy burden. For Marcellus the details we have would seem to indicate that his reaction was more of an outburst, the collapse of a dam, he suddenly could take no more. The timing and place of his declaration made virtually inevitable his execution, yet he preferred that to continued silence. For Maximillian it was a reasoned decision arising from his faith.
Whilst a declaration of Christian faith is not yet a capital offence in this country, there are many who do not feel that they can openly declare it; fear of the opinion of their peers, fear of ridicule, serious and genuine fear for their employment or business. Yet each of us owes to our faith the foundation of our lives, and must recognise an obligation to share that faith. The question arises how and when to share it? Clearly we share it everyday by the way we live. Are we loving when interacting with others, are we patient with those with whom we disagree, do we try to do our best for those we dislike? These are all ways to share our faith even though we never utter the name of our Lord.
BUT….more is required; yes, the utterance of that name! Here a degree of tact and diplomacy are required (never forgetting that these virtues can also be a questionable excuse for not naming Jesus Christ!) One doesn’t emphasise the joy we experience from the love of Christ to someone who has just lost a child or whose home has been repossessed. Some need to be guided slowly, imperceptibly to joy. With others we can be a little less guarded, rather have a rational discussion. Occasionally however, we have to follow the example of Maximilian and Marcellus and just dig in, say our piece and take the consequences. Tricky isn’t it? Take heart, as yet we’re unlikely to be put to the sword.
O God, by the example of your martyrs, strengthen in us faith and purpose and give us the wisdom to know by which path to walk towards you with those we meet, through Christ our lord. Amen.
Douai Abbey oblate