17 July: St. Marcellina, virgin

Today is the feast of St. Marcellina , the elder sister of St. Ambrose of Milan. She was probably born in Trier around 330.

In 353 at the feast of Epiphany she took the veil in the Vatican Basilica, consecrated to perpetual virginity by Pope Liberius (who built the great Basilica of St. Mary Major, the "Liberian" Basilica). She remained in Rome for sometime.

Marcellina occasioned an important theological treatise and some fascinating retellings of key event events of the 4th century.

Ambrose dedicated to Marcellina what is considered the first systematic spiritual and theological treatment of virginity, his De virginibus. The genesis of this work is interesting. It came forth in 377, about three years after Ambrose became bishop. It seems to be comprised of two sermons, one by Ambrose on the feast of St. Agnes and the other by Pope Liberius on Christmas Day in 353 when Marcellina received the veil. There might be another, third, sermon as well. From these sources Ambrose treated the topic very comprehensively. You can tell that Ambrose must have had an ongoing dialogue about virginity and its meaning. For example, Marcellina may have contributed a suggestion for Ambrose’s work De virginibus that it was permissible for virgins to commit suicide to avoid rape.

We have three letters (epp. 20, 22, 41) from Ambrose to Marcellina. In ep. 20 Ambrose describes the events of Holy Week in 386 when the Empress Justina was trying to seize basilicas in Milan for the use of Arians. This is the famous stand off when the Catholics around their bishop barred themselves in the church and, in the face of threats of violence from imperial troops, stared down a massacre while singing hymns. We have some of Ambrose’s hymns, which so moved St. Augustine of Hippo and helped him to his "affective" conversion. In ep. 22 Ambrose describes the discovery of the bodies of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius with a transcription of his homily. In ep. 41 Ambrose recounts his homily on the difference between the Church and the synagogue as part of the events surrounding the Emperor Theodosius’s burning of a synagogue and the temple of the Valentinians at Callinicum.

Ambrose seems to have had the practice of recounting to his sister the important events of his life.

Ambrose described the grief of his sister at the the premature death of Satyrus their brother in De excessu fratris Satyri 1.33. It is worth a moment to read what Ambrose writes here, to tell you something of his character and their loving family bond:

33. Happy, then, was [Symmachus] in so opportune a death, because he has not been preserved for this sorrow. Certainly thou [Satyrus] art happier than thy holy sister, deprived of thy comfort, anxious for her own modesty, lately blessed with two brothers, now wretched because of both, being able neither to follow the one nor to leave the other; for whom thy tomb is a lodging, and the burying-place of thy body a home. And would that even this resting-place were safe! Our food is mingled with weeping and our drink with tears, for thou hast given us the bread of tears as food, and tears to drink in large measure, nay, even beyond measure.

34. What now shall I say of myself, who may not die lest I leave my sister, and desire not to live lest I be separated from thee? For what can ever be pleasant to me without thee, in whom was always my whole pleasure? or what satisfaction is it to remain longer in this life, and to linger on the earth where we lived with pleasure so long as we lived together? If there were anything which could delight us here, it could not delight without thee; and if ever we had earnestly desired to prolong our life, now at any rate we would not exist without thee.

To tell you something of Ambrose, from an ancient and powerful family, wealthy in his own right before becoming bishop. Ambrose divested himself of his property and, after making arrangements for the income and well-being of his sister Marcellina, gave everything to the poor. Thereafter, he would leave the door of his house open to visitors and spent a great deal of effort and resources of the Church in the care of the poor.

According to a work called Vita sanctae Marcellinae, died around 70 years of age in Milan on 17 when Simplicianus was bishop, so, sometime between Ambrose’s death in 397 and 401, and she was buried in the Milanese Basilica of St. Ambrose, close to her brother.

The fact of the consecration to virginity of Marcellina points to the devout character of the household in which she and her brothers were raised, despite the fact that neither Ambrose nor Satyrus were baptized until they were adults (not uncommon in in the ancient world). Remember that even the ultra-pious mother of St. Augustine, Monnica, didn’t have her child baptized as an infant. In any event, Ambrose himself was a "bachelor" even in his mid-thirties when he became a bishop (and got baptized really quickly!) and brother Satyrus remained unmarried as well, as we know from Ambrose’s funeral oration. In short, all three of the children were celibate.

Marcellina is one of those interesting women of the ancient world who, though in the background behind the famous men of the day, nevertheless exerted an influence. Because of Marcellina and her correspondence with her super-star, super-busy brother, we know something of important issues of the 4th century.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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4 Responses to 17 July: St. Marcellina, virgin

  1. Brad says:

    Today is also the memorial of Bl. Teresa of St Augustine and her companions (for the Carmelite order). They were a group of Carmelite nuns who offered their lives for an end to the French Revolution. Theirs is a very powerful witness to the importance of religious in the Church.

  2. Brad: Yes, thanks. She is #14* in the Martyrologium Martyrology… along with 15 sisters who were all martyred in 1791. They renewed their baptismal promises and religious vows before they were killed for their Faith.

  3. Rich McNally says:

    I was glad to see the comment on the Carmelite martyrs of Compiegne. Here in in Paris we celebrated it as a memorial. They are buried in the mass graves in the Picpus cemetery which is behind the house of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts on the rue de Picpus. That is the congregation of Blessed Damien of Molokai.

  4. I have actually visited that cemetary, some years ago. Thanks for making the connection for me!