September 2013 Print

A Visit to the Catacombs

by Anthony De Piante

Strange as it may seem, despite having been to Rome twice previously, I had not invested the time necessary to visit the Catacombs. The simple reason lay in the fact that the Catacombs are not easily accessible from the city center. However, because I had read extensively about them and the martyrs buried in them, I already felt a sort of understanding and connection with them. Thus when the time came to choose between visiting the Catacombs or a magnificent Baroque church, I always chose the latter.

However, I was recently given the grace to see what I had not seen, when my family and I moved to Rome for a year. Living here in Rome, I told myself that I would finally venture out along the Appian Way, beyond the city gates, and visit the tombs of the martyrs.

Blood of Martyrs, Seed of Christians

The first opportunity to do so came, ironically enough, at the request of a prominent American Protestant minister. A friend of some friends of my family, he was in Rome for a day, and interested in seeing the sights. Knowing him only through our mutual friends, my brother and I accompanied him around Rome, showing him the best the city has to offer. He did not have any sights that he specifically wished to see, with the exceptions of the Colosseum and the Catacombs. As time has gone by, I have found out that many Protestants are interested in these sights because of their connection to the early Christians, whom the Protestants identify with because of the fact that they held the “true” faith before the Church became “corrupt.” (You and I, however, know that these early Christians were Catholics, not Protestants.) As God willed, though, our bus to the Catacombs arrived with just ten minutes to spare before they closed. Faced with an eight-minute walk to the entrance, we could do nothing except enjoy a drink from a fountain, and begin the trek back towards Rome.

Despite not having seen the Catacombs with the Protestant minister, my family and I had the opportunity to successfully visit them a few weeks later. After having finally seen them, it is the overwhelming treasure they are to our Faith that I wish to speak of in this article.

It has been said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. Certainly we can understand this when learning about the great persecutions. The sight of a martyr joyfully giving his life for Christ no doubt inspired others to join the flock. However, the Catacombs and the archaeological evidence they give us continue to nurture our faith even today. The blood spilled then has not ceased to be effective in combating error, and we have much to profit by turning to the ancient martyrs.

Brutal Choice

The choice facing Christians during the early centuries was often brutal, but perfectly straightforward. Pagan prefects and judges minced no words about their aims. Christians were given the choice of sacrificing to the pagan gods or being subjected to material and bodily punishments, and even death. Despite these brutal tactics, Satan was not able to curb the growth of the Church. It survived the decay of the Roman Empire, and grew and flourished, especially in the Middle Ages. It also safely weathered the storm of early heresies, such as Manichaeism and Arianism, and the Moslem invasions of Europe. Satan’s next great attack in the form of the Protestant Revolt during the 16th century was certainly milder than the great persecutions. However, although Luther and his cronies may have initially led some astray, the Faith held, and enemies of Christ such as Elizabeth I of England and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden had to once again resort to violence to try to oppress it. Courageous Catholics such as Philip II of Spain helped check this new threat, and ensured that the Catholic Church would remain alive and well, even if not as widespread as before. Thus having failed to destroy the Church throughout history from the outside, Satan is now relying on infiltrating the Church and destroying it from within to continue his futile battle against God.

Despite the outward differences in these attacks upon the Church, their motives have all been the same—to destroy our Faith by eradicating the truths we hold to, the truths that we profess in the Creed and that we have come to know through Scripture and Tradition. Visiting the Catacombs and turning back the pages of time, however, enables us to combat the errors presented by each of these attacks, by understanding the Faith as our predecessors understood it. Just as the blood of the martyrs was the seed of Christians in ancient times, it can continue to nurture us in our Faith, strengthening us and enabling us to reach heaven by holding onto truth.

With the goal of learning about our Faith by a visit to the Catacombs, let us first turn our attention to what exactly the Catacombs were. Although the Romans practiced cremation, the early Christians desired to bury their dead because of the belief in the resurrection of the body and the respect due to it as a temple of the Holy Ghost. However, Roman law forbade the burial of corpses within the city limits, so large underground chambers were carved in the soft limestone outside the city.

Contrary to popular belief, the early Christians did not hide for long periods of time in the Catacombs, simply because they did not offer any real protection from pursuers, and they were also uninhabitable. The Roman authorities knew the general location of the Catacombs, and despite some initial fear of spirits, did not hesitate to enter them and apprehend Christians. Because of the smell of decaying bodies and the humidity (the humidity is 90 percent in the Catacombs of Domitilla) the Christians could not linger long in any case. Nevertheless, the Catacombs did offer them a place where they could respectfully bury their dead, in keeping with the belief that on the last day our souls will be united with our bodies. Although cremation is practiced in the Novus Ordo today, the early Christians saw its danger, and faithfully buried their dead. This perseverance through much difficulty and hardship (it is easier to burn a body than carve a tomb out of rock, no?) illustrates the understanding expressed centuries later by Fr. John Laux, when he wrote: “On December 8, 1869, the International Congress of Freemasons imposed it as a duty on all its members to do all in their power to wipe out Catholicity from the face of the earth. Cremation was proposed as a suitable means to this end, since it was calculated to gradually undermine the faith of the people in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting” (Fr. John Laux, Catholic Morality [Imprimatur 1932], p. 106). Nowadays when the expenses of funerals have skyrocketed, and the prices of burial plots make cremation an attractive alternative, be consoled as you plan your Will that the early Christians went through the same trials and difficulties you might encounter.

Catacombs of Domitilla

Because they are the most useful in illustrating the points in this article, I shall use the Catacombs of Domitilla as a reference throughout. The best way to appreciate them and understand them is by exploring them, which I hope to do with you as much as I can in this article. The Catacombs of Domitilla lie about a thirty-minute walk outside the city. They are the oldest of the Catacombs, and the only Catacombs where you can still view bones of the martyrs. They were used until the fourth century, when they fell into disuse and obscurity until their rediscovery. They comprise a total of nearly six miles of underground passageways on four different levels. Immediately upon descending below the surface one enters the ancient Basilica of Nereus and Achilleus. The Basilica was built around A.D. 390 and offers some suggestion of how the early Christians worshipped. I believe the Protestant minister accompanying me would have been surprised to see that the early “Protestants” he so admired worshipped in a church containing a marble altar abutting the wall, marble pedestals in front upon which were statues of saints, and even a marble basin which contained oil and was lit in front of the relics of the martyrs. These relics were venerated in large sarcophagi in the narthex of the church. These elements of our Catholic church today exist with such clarity in this underground basilica as to inspire awe in any visiting Catholic.

Continuing out of the basilica, we enter the crypt of Veranda. This crypt is important for several reasons. The tomb of Veranda was the type of tomb known as a mensa, or table, and was used as an altar upon which priests would say mass. Dated to the 350s, there is also a fresco in the crypt showing the lady Veranda praying, her head covered with a veil, contradicting the modern notion that women may enter church without showing proper respect for the Blessed Sacrament. The veil is clearly a symbol of prayer and not period dress, as Veranda’s friend Petronella is standing to the right of her, not praying, and unveiled.

Catholic Devotional Artwork

Our next stop is another crypt that provides excellent examples of Catholic devotional artwork. The best of these is the scene of Christ surrounded by the twelve Apostles. This scene occurs five separate times in the Catacombs of Domitilla. Also interesting are the easily recognized scenes of St. Peter and St. Paul with their various symbols (Scriptural scrolls and sword for St. Paul, keys for St. Peter). There is also another fresco showing the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, being adored by the Magi. Once again, I wish that the Protestant minister could have seen this ancient (fourth century) display of Christianity, which in no way supports the common Protestant rejection of sacred images.

Combating the heresy of Arianism that Jesus Christ was not equal to God the Father is the marble fragment that bears an inscription of a fish, and the acrostic “ichtus” in Greek for “Jesus Christ, Son of God the Saviour.”

Walking towards the exit we pass by two glass cases containing hundreds of tiny oil lamps. These miniatures were found in front of various tombs of the martyrs, much the same way you or I would light a candle in front of a relic or statue. They repose in the green light of the Catacombs, a dusty and yet shining example of the reverence the early Christians felt for their heroes and the devotion we should feel towards them and other saints as well.

Listening to the guide, and reading about the Catacombs, we learn about the wide variety of people who were put to death for steadfastly cleaving to Christ. Deacons, priests, laypeople, and even Pope Sixtus II, were all taken prisoner in the Catacombs and put to death for refusing to deny their faith. We can learn much from their constancy. No thoughts of compromising their worship of the One True God existed in the minds of these martyrs. No ecumenical ideas of dialogue and understanding with other religions permeated their thoughts. In fact we read of one martyr who steadfastly refused to offer incense to the pagan gods. Impressed by his constancy his pagan lawyer attempted to free him by telling the judge that he had offered incense in private. Our hero quickly denied this loudly and ignored the intentions of his pagan lawyer, remaining steadfast until his martyrdom. It is the bodies of saints like this that repose thirty feet under the Roman earth. May their resting places continue to inspire and strengthen the faith of those who visit. Requiescant in pace.

Anthony De Piante lived in Rome for two years, which afforded him the opportunity to learn about and visit the Catacombs, as well as many other sacred and historical sites. He currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, and attends St. Anthony of Padua Chapel. He and his wife Lesly are expecting their first child.