On Being “Surrounded” by a Cloud of Witnesses 

Fr. Emmanuel Katongole

Keynote Address to Pilgrims at the Annual Celebration of the Feast of St. Marcellus

Co-hosted by the Community for Peace and Nonviolence,

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and 

the Catholic Peace Fellowship

Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame, Indiana – October 29, A.D. 2015


I did not know much about Marcellus until the invitation to speak at this year’s pilgrimage. However, since I read his story and on listening to its dramatization this evening I have been thinking about his ‘madness’.  Marcellus was not simply a high ranking general; he was a centurion – a commander – of the Roman army. That such a high ranking general would give up his position simply because of an excessive birthday celebration for the emperor did not make sense at all.  So, at Marcellus trial, Agricolanus, the vicepraetorian prefect asked him, “By what madness were you incited so that you renounced the oaths and spoke such things?”

The story of Marcellus reminds me of another story of madness, closer in time. It is the story of a 60 year old Hutu woman, a member of the Auxiliaries of the Apostolate, Felicitas Niyitegeka.  During the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, Felicitas was in charge of an orphanage in Gisenyi where she cared for children, most of whom were Tutsi. When the news of the Genocide spread to Gisenyi, Felicitas hid over thirty Tutsis at the orphanage (Saint Pierre) and helped many more Tutsis flee over the border in the Congo. Sister Felicitas’ brother, who was an army colonel in the Rwanda military, asked her to stop protecting Tutsis, but she refused, and wrote him the following letter:

Thank you for wanting to help me. I would rather die than abandon the forty three persons for whom I am responsible. Pray for us, that we may come to God. Say ‘goodbye’ to our old mother and our brother. When I come to God, I shall pray for you. Keep well. Thank you for thinking of me. If God saves us, as we hope, we shall see you tomorrow.” Yours, Sr. Felicite Niyitegeka[1]


When the Interahamwe (a Hutu military force) came to Gisenyi, they told Felicitas that she would be spared because she was Hutu and because of her brother, but she would have to surrender all the others in her household. She answered that her household would stay together—in life and death. The commander pleaded with her, urging her “to be reasonable” but she would not. After they killed thirty of her charges before her, she told the commander, “I have no reason to live when you have killed my brothers before me.” The militia leader asked her to pray for him before he shot her.

By What madness, Marcellus?

Do not be unreasonable, Felicitas!

We come to witness, remember and celebrate madness.


In Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews, the author describes faith as the “confidence of that which we hope for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11). The author then goes through a list of exemplars – ‘crazy’ characters who lived with confidence of things not seen:  Abraham who set off on a journey without a clue of where he was going; Sarah who still believed she could have a child long after her child bearing years; Noah who built an ark when there was not rain at all; Joseph and his crazy dreams…. Marcellus belongs to this cloud of crazy witnesses.

The reason that the author of the letter to the Hebrews points to the cloud of witnesses is to encourage his readers (and us) in their trials and tribulations:  “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1) he writes, “let us throw off everything that slows us….let us fix our gaze on Jesus the perfecter of our faith… let us not grow weary and lose heart…”

Accordingly, there is something warm and encouraging about the fact that we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses.  They inspire us, support us, encourage us and journey with us.

But there is also something unnerving, even terrifying, about the fact that we are “surrounded.” We cannot escape. Something about the lives of people like Marcellus and Felicitas “does not stop pounding deep inside”, does not let us sleep,; does not let us rest.” They threaten us with resurrection.

In the poem, “Threatened with Resurrection,”  Julia Esquivel,  the school teacher turned dissent, speaks about the killings (since 1954) in her country of Guatemala when thousands of indigenous people were killed by the military regime in Guatemala.  Those slain not only witness to the pain of those living, their memory keeps them (living) from sleeping and threatens them with resurrection.  She writes:

It is not the noise in the streets that keeps us from resting …

Nor is it the shouts of the young people coming out drunk from the St, Pauli,


There is something here within us
Which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
Which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside,
It is the silent, warm weeping of Indian women without their husbands,
It is the sad gaze of the children
Fixed there beyond memory …

What keeps us from sleeping,
Is that they have threatened us with resurrection![2]

I draw attention to Esquivel’s “Threatened with Resurrection” mainly for two reasons. One, it helps to highlight the predicament we find ourselves as Christians, who like Marcellus have vowed to “serve Jesus Christ the everlasting King.”  In “Threatened with Resurrection,” Esquivel speaks of the killers – the demented gorillas (she calls them), who have savagely massacred hundreds of peasants thus threaten those still alive with death. But she also speaks of those killed whose memory keeps the living from sleeping.   In the end, the ‘threat of resurrection’ comes both from those who dispense death and from those who have died in the hope of new life.

The implications are huge, for as Parker Palmer  suggests

If it is true that both killers and the killed threaten us with resurrection, then we are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we fear the killers, but not simply because they want to kill us. We fear them because they test our convictions about resurrection; they test our willingness to be brought into a larger life than the one we now know. On the other hand, we fear the innocent victims of the killers, those who have died for love and justice and peace. Though they are our friends, we fear them because they call us to follow them in the ‘marathon of Hope’. If we were to take their calling seriously, we ourselves would have to undergo some form of dying. [3]


Caught between the killers and the killed, Palmer notes, we huddle together in a conspiracy of silence, trying to ignore the ambiguous call of the new life that lies beyond death. Julia Esquivel is trying to break up our little huddle, trying to inspire our active lives, calling us to engage both the demented gorillas as well as our martyred friends, calling us to walk into our fear of resurrection and to open ourselves to the life on the other side.[4]

And this is the second reason I find Esquivel’s Threatened with Resurrection helpful. It points to at least three disciplines through which the memory of our martyrs helps us to live in that precarious in between, threatened by both the living and the dead, by both the perpetrators and victims of violence. These disciplines confirm why from a Christian point of view, the church can offer no more determinative sign of hope that to name, celebrate and remember the stories of martyrs. For in so doing the church draws attention to and forms disciplines of vigilance, non-violent struggle, and resurrected living- disciplines without which we would not know how to live as a people of hope in the face of violence.


  1. Vigilance: Martyrs helps us to learn how to ‘sleep awake’

In   “Threatened with Resurrection,” Esquivel speaks of being kept from sleeping by the memory of those slain. Esquivel is not referring to the lack of sleep known as insomnia, but to a form of watchfulness. She speaks about “the whirlwind which does not let us sleep,” and “why sleeping, we keep watch.” The reason, it seems is that it is through such watchfulness that one is able to keep an eye on ‘those demented gorillas’—the crazy generals of this world who readily revert to violence in an attempt to secure peace.

The early Christians knew something of this watchfulness, for they had no illusion that the world in which they lived was hospitable to the Christian way of life. That is the reason as John Paul II reminds us, in spite of considerable organization difficulties, the church of the first centuries, took meticulous care to write down in special martyrologies the witness of the martyrs.[5] But it is also the reason why the church not only took time to celebrate the feastdays of martyrs, but these feast days were often marked by a ‘vigil’ service. The vigil was not simply a way of anticipating the celebration of the feast day with prayer and other liturgical commemoration. It was a metaphor for Christian existence.

Another way the early church was able to cultivate vigilance as a way of life was to constantly keep the stories of the martyrs before them. Thus they named their children after the martyrs. I must admit that one reason I did not know the story of Marcellus till only recently, is that I do not know a single person called Marcellus. The names became important geographies of memory that provided an opportunity to retell the story of the martyr and in doing so, see more clearly their own lives and the particular challenges confronting them.

In our time, we have greatly lost the sense of the world as a dangerous place. This may sound ironic given the ever present reality of war, injustice and conflict. What we have lost is the ability to see these challenges as specifically Christian challenges (and not simply as human challenges). A renewed practice of the memory of martyrs through naming our children after the martyrs might offer us an opportunity to cultivate vigilance as a way of life, while allowing us to see and name those subtle forms of idolatry that might lie behind what on the surface may appear as innocent forms of cultural or national festivities.

This is what is particularly striking about the story of Marcellus for instance. For, even though Marcellus had become a Christian before, it was not until the celebration of the emperor’s birthday that he renounced his service as a soldier. The emperor’s birthday was celebrated with extraordinary festivity, and rites… While this might strike many of us as excessive and uncalled for, we probably may not see it as fundamental threat to the Christian way of life.  Where the story of Marcellus is particularly poignant is that he was able to see that behind the festive celebrations and rites, was the idolatrous claim of the emperor as the Lord of history, to whom all loyalty was due….


  1. Life of non-violent struggle for Justice and Peace

Martyrs call the church to advocacy for justice and peace.  In “Threatened with Resurrection,” Esquivel writes:

They have threatened us with resurrection,

because they are more alive than ever before,

because they transform our agonies,

and fertilize our struggle

because they pick  us up when we fall

because they loom like giants

before the crazed gorillas’ fear[6]


The slain, even though dead, they “are more alive than ever before.” This is especially true of martyrs. Here is the irony: with their death they are said to rest in God. But they are never really at rest. The martyrs restlessness is a cry of lament, a cry of “how long”?

It is not exactly clear why Fr. Sorin brought the relics of Marcellus to Notre Dame. But the fact that his remains are below the altar reminds me of the martyrs’ lament that John writes about in the Book of Revelation.

When he (the angel) broke open the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar, the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev. 6:9-10).

In this vision of Revelation, the slaughtered souls are at the breaking point for living out the peaceful vision of the lamb. They are mad. They are ready for God to do something.  They do not want their death to be for nothing. That is why their restlessness is to spur on their earthly friends to continue the transformative efforts they began. The want their earthly compatriots to come to the same fury, and thus the same breaking point, which is the sine non qua condition for nonviolent resistance.[7]

Thus what the text of revelation confirms is that the memory of martyrs is not an innocent exercise; it is a practice of “dangerous memory.” And as such it breaks the church to a breaking point – and the breaking point is not a break down moment, it is a moment of “breaking back and hard”; it is not a moment of falling down; it is moment of standing up; it is not a moment for giving in, it is a moment for giving everything; it is a moment for struggle and for non-violent resistance.

This is the breaking moment that Oscar Romero reached with the martyrdom of Rutillo Grande (1977); it is a similar moment the El Salvadorian church reached with the martyrdom of Oscar Romero (1980), and of the Jesuit martyrs, their housekeeper and her daughter (1989). This is why we should be careful with celebrating the memory of martyrs. For they threaten us with resurrection, and thus bring us to the breaking point of advocacy and non-violent resistance.


  1. Resurrected Community

Martyrs helps us to know ourselves  “already resurrected” or, which is the same thing,  martyrs call the church into the discipline of resurrected living. In “Threatened by Resurrection,” Esquivel speaks about this way of living as a form of odd existence marked by a set of apparently contradictory postures: “To dream awake, to keep watch asleep, to live while dying and to know ourselves already resurrected![8] What I take from Esquivel’s observation is that “resurrection” is not merely a belief about a future -after life. It is it is a way of living that does not fully conform to the logic of the present because it is based on “the evidence of things not seen.”   It is a way of living in the present with dreams drawn from a future that has not yet been fully realized; Wendell Berry speaks of this resurrected living as a form of art that has to be practiced. In In the Manifesto for Mad Farmer Revolution, he writes,

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. …..  Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance …. Ask the questions that have no answers.

Listen to carrion… hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh…

Be joyful though you have considered all the facts….

Practice Resurrection.[9]


Thomas Sankara spoke of it as a kind of “madness” – the courage to “invent the future”.

This is the kind of madness—of daring to invent the future—that the martyrs threaten us with and invite us into.

This is the story of the 911 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, founded by family members of those killed on September 11th, who advocate for nonviolent options and actions in an effort to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism.  Following 911 as the U.S prepared to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they opposed the war efforts, citing Martin Luther King Jr’s words, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” And following the attacks, members of Peaceful Tomorrows travelled to Iraq and Afghanistan and reached out to victims of the War on terror.

In stories like  911 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, one sees what it means to “practice resurrection”, to “live while dying” and to know oneself “already resurrected”.




So my dear friends, be vigilant, struggle for justice for the poor and weak, and practice resurrection.

At the trial of Marcellus, when Agricolanus, the vicepreateorian prefect asked Marcellus, “By what madness were you incited to renounce your oath and speak in the way you spoke? Marcellus answered, “There is no madness in those who fear the Lord.” Implied in Marcellus’ response was a veiled rebuttal to the effect that the kind of decision he had taken was “normal” for those had faith God, those who believed that Jesus Christ is the Lord of History, and that it is not he Marcellus who was mad, but Agricolanus and the emperor who were driven by madness

If we live lives of vigilance, committed to non-violent struggle, and practice everyday forms of resurrection, we will not only confirm that Jesus Christ is the everlasting King and the Prince of Peace, we will show that the real madness in the world lies with those who would rather use violence to secure peace.

So, (Esquivel again):


Join us in this vigil

and you will know what it is to dream!

Then you will know how marvelous it is

to live threatened with Resurrection![10]


However, do not walk alone. For the journey is long. And as an African proverb reminds us, “if you want to walk fast, walk alone, but if you want to go far, walk with others.” Accordingly, find others willing to walk together. And always remember, you are never alone. You are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that includes Marcellus, Felicitas, Grande, Romero…. But also remember, as Esquivel reminds us, that

because in this marathon of Hope,

there are always others to relieve us

who carry the strength

to reach the finish line

which lies beyond death.[11]


Saint Marcellus, pray for us.



[1] Jean d’Amour Dusengumuremyi, No Greater Love: Testimonies on the Life and Death of Felicitas Niyitegeka, (Dignity Press, Lake Oswego, OR. 2015), p. 16.

[2] Julia Esquival, Threatened with Resurrection, 59-61.

[3] Parker Palmer The Active Life, by Parker J. Palmer, San Francisco. Jossey-Bass, 1990): 148.

[4] Parker Palmer, 148

[5] John Paul II, T Apostolic Letter, Tertio Mllenio Adveniente, Roma 1994.  # 37.

[6] Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection, 63.

[7] Brian Blount, “Breaking Point, a Sermon,” in Sally Brown et al, Lament: Proclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, (Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 2005), 152

[8] Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection, 63-65.

[9] http://www.context.org/iclib/ic30/berry/ (5/10/15)

[10] Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection, 63.

[11] Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection, 61.

*Special thanks to Olivet AME Church for providing a meal and hospitality earlier this evening and to the Nickel & Dime Acting Troupe for their dramatization of the Trial of St. Marcellus
Thanks also to the following for the additional support they provided for this evening’s events: Basilica of the Sacred Heart, ND Campus Ministry, Moreau Seminary, Notre Dame Peace Fellowship, Holy Cross College, ND Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives in the Institute for Church Life, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, ND Center for Social Concerns-Catholic Social Tradition Program, ND Master of Divinity Program, Andy Wagoner and the Saint Peter Claver Catholic Worker

marcellus day

Saint Marcellus Day 2015

Thursday, October 29th

Supper, Pilgrimage, Address and Prayers

The relics of St. Marcellus are housed in the main altar at Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame and each year around his feast day pilgrims visit those relics to pray and meditate on the current-day meaning of his martyrdom for peace 1,700 years ago.

“I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King…It is not right for a Christian, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” – Saint Marcellus of Tangiers

5:00 pm:  Meal and Pilgrimage – Come together with others for a simple supper and dramatization of the trial of Saint Marcellus at Olivet AME Church (719 N. Notre Dame Ave., South Bend) after which pilgrims will process together to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame.

7:15 pm: Prayer Service – Gather for a prayer for peace and address by  Fr. Emmanuel Katongole in the Lady Chapel in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame, Indiana. (For more on this year’s speaker visit: emmanuelkatongole.com).

9:00 pm:  Service of Light Join in a Lucernarium prayer to mark the Vigil of the Feast of Saint Marcellus which will be celebrated at the Moreau Seminary Chapel (107 Moreau Dr., Notre Dame, Indiana) and followed by a light reception hosted by the Congregation of Holy Cross.

*Shuttles will be available for those returning to Olivet Church from the Basilica or Moreau Seminary, who prefer a ride.*


Co-hosted by

The Community of Peace & Nonviolence,

 Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary &

 The Catholic Peace Fellowship


Come for any or all of the events. For more information please contact

Sharon Kniss at info@cpnv.net or Shawn Storer at 574.339.1100

or staff@catholicpeacefellowship.org

Click here for a link to the flyer for printing.

On Friday, October 30 masses celebrating the Feast of St. Marcellus will be held at 11:30am and 5:15pm at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

(Banner Image, St. Marcellus Image above by artist Jane Pitz, Courtesy of Catholic Peace Fellowship, Basilica of the Sacred Heart Image, Jim Forest)