Pope Marcellus II – Lessons from a Short Pontificate

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

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With the exception of apostolic times, the Holy Church perhaps never lived through a period of such terrible and glorious events as in the 16th century. Among them, the evangelization of the New World and the Counter-Reformation with the Council of Trent constituted a legacy of inestimable value for the future, despite tragic losses such as the Protestant schisms in England and Germany.

A similar situation unfolded among Peter’s successors. Alongside such great luminaries of the Faith as St. Pius V, the Chair of Truth was unfortunately occupied by pusillanimous men of questionable probity, whose attitudes often contrasted with the high mission entrusted to them by the Holy Spirit.

Looking closely at the sinuous path of the history of the Pontiffs, we find an important but little-known figure: Marcello Cervini, elected in 1555 under the name Marcellus II.

Origins marked by virtue

Marcello Cervini was born in 1501 to a noble family of Montepulciano, Italy. His father, Ricardo Cervini, was a great intellectual who enjoyed considerable prestige in Rome, where he helped Pope Leo X in the reform of the calendar. Conscientious towards his paternal duty, he educated his son from an early age in the sacred and profane sciences, both of which were of great interest to Marcellus, who united his intelligence to the most sincere humility, like a Gothic arch.

To complete his studies, the young man was sent to Siena, a city well known for its licentious way of life. Nevertheless, in the midst of countless occasions of perdition he remained steadfast, always an example of uprightness and simplicity for his companions.

Around 1523 he went on to Rome, where he spent much time in the circles of Vatican scholars and ecclesiastics, receiving constant favours and assignments from the reigning Pontiff, Clement VII. Finally, after years of service to the Holy See, in 1539 he was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Paul III.

Faithful servant of the Church

From then on, the Cardinal served as papal legate on important diplomatic missions, always demonstrating his fidelity to the interests of the Holy Church, especially at the Council of Trent, during which he was one of the presiding officials. His rigor and integrity earned him many enemies – as is often the case. These included Emperor Charles V himself, who, when he tried to bribe him, received a terrible rebuke in return.

When Pope Julius III died, the conclave of April 1555 unanimously elected Cervini as Supreme Pontiff, despite his opponents’ efforts to the contrary. Keeping his baptismal name, he was crowned Marcellus II. Only one vote went against him: his own, which he had cast for the distinguished Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa, the future Pope Paul IV, at the time dean of the Sacred College and, like him, a supporter of good ecclesiastical reform.

In this impressive election, “his irreproachable life and his rigorously ecclesiastical judgement were decisive. Marcellus Cervini had long carried out a reform within himself and, as Pope, he was keen to suppress abuses and restore the unity of the Faith and universal peace.1

The conclave of 1555 elected Cervini as Supreme Pontiff. He had long carried out the reform of Trent within himself and, as Pope, he was keen to suppress abuses and restore the unity of the Faith
Vatican Gardens and St. Peter’s Basilica in the mid-16th century, by Hendrick van Cleve III – Fondation Custodia, Paris

As Vicar of Christ, he proved to have a firm temperament, conviction in his ideals and, above all, to have utmost zeal for God’s flock entrusted to him. As soon as he ascended to the throne of St. Peter, he implemented the much-desired reform of the clergy’s customs, which had fallen into extreme decadence. And to remedy the lamentable nepotism widely practiced by his predecessors, he forbade his relatives from entering Rome without his express consent, and was reluctant to consider favoring them with ecclesiastical goods.

Nevertheless… he was unable to go further with his plans, which held so much promise for the future of the Church.

In the hands of Providence

If my life is to be useful to the Church of God, may He preserve it; if not, I would rather it be short, so as not to increase my sins.”2 This is how he replied to someone who wished him a long and prosperous reign on the day of his election as Supreme Pontiff. Such a statement may initially come as a shock, but St. Paul had already endorsed it, and Marcellus well understood the Apostle’s words: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:7-8).

And that is what happened. After officiating at the Holy Week ceremonies, Marcellus II fell seriously ill and died within a few days, to the astonishment of all of Christendom. His pontificate lasted only twenty-two days, ten of which were spent with the Pontiff totally incapacitated…

What was a cause of consternation for men – especially the good – was, however, God’s desire. Surely, only on the Day of Judgement will we know what intentions the Most High had in taking a servant of such promise and who had reigned for such a short time as the Successor of Peter.

An example to emulate

Marcellus II’s remains were laid to rest in a simple tomb in the Vatican Basilica, according to his wishes. “It is not the tomb that honors your ashes, but the ashes that honor your tomb,”3 was later written there.

At the urging of the Pope’s nephew, St. Robert Bellarmine, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina composed one of his most famous polyphonic works in memory of the deceased: the Missa Papæ Marcelli.

How surprised we are to see the ways of Providence in guiding events like this. Regardless of what Pope Marcellus’ earthly future might have been, what is certain is that the Lord asked of him total flexibility and renunciation of his own will and aspirations, however noble, and holy they were, for the fulfillment of divine designs.

How often is it easier for us to perform works and conquests than to resign ourselves to a small setback that God wants but which goes against our plans…

Marcellus II is an example of a shepherd to be admired, but above all imitated. ◊

Taken from the Heralds of the Gospel magazine, #196.


1 WEISS, Juan Bautista. Historia Universal. Barcelona: La Educación, 1929, v.IX, p.681-682.

2 PASTOR, Ludovico. Historia de los Papas. En la época de la reforma y restauración católica. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1927, v.XIV, p.37.

3 Idem, p.52.

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