The catacombs of St. Callixtus

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The catacombs of Rome are mounds of bones, flickering torchlight, the whispers of persecuted Christians long past. Such thoughts are often evoked when the modern visitor to the Eternal City hears of the place and decides to visit. What they find, instead, is perhaps less spooky, but certainly more profound. The tombs of our forefathers, but often empty; the sacred art, expressing the faith of those there lain; or perhaps most striking, the saving truths and stories that bring the place to life.

 

It has been a privilege and a highlight of my years at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome to accompany visitors on their walk through the catacombs of St. Callixtus. As one of the apostolates arranged by NAC, it offers seminarians the opportunity to present the site, and share their own faith and experience of the church of Rome. From the devoted Catholic on a sincere pilgrimage to the holy sites, to the secular tourist discovering Christianity for the first time, these visitors come from every background imaginable and with a variety of motives.

 

What we try to share during the visit is what motivated the saints, such as St. Josemaría Escrivá, who sought to celebrate Mass in the Crypt of the Popes soon after his arrival in Rome; or St. Philip Neri, who famously braved his way into the catacombs long before the modern conveniences of electric lighting, handrails and emergency exits. In their footsteps, we glimpse the past and the future: our Christian forbears, the saints who laid the foundations of our Roman church; and in the frescoes, inscriptions and mosaics, the hope we now share in the future glory of Heaven.

 

For the committed Christian, the pilgrimage is the occasion for an encouraging encounter with the heroes of our faith, in whom the universality of the church is clearly depicted: from Pope St. Sixtus II, martyred in the Crypt of the Popes while celebrating Mass at the tombs of his predecessors, to St. Cecilia, virgin, martyr and noblewoman of Rome. Or perhaps more relatable for the visitor of today, the countless men and women, clerical and lay, slave and free, who accomplished no mighty feat and held no great title or office, yet are remembered for the outstanding measure of faith, hope and charity they lived unto death.

 

Throughout the tunnels at every turn, inscriptions and murals present the saving message that inspired these saints. Carved in the marble are the more simple designs, yet profoundly rich in meaning. The simple fish is well loved by all, its name in Greek an acronym for the Gospel’s very core: Jesus Christ, God’s son, the savior. On the tombstones of so many is found the Chi Rho, a symbol for one claimed by Christ. These simple expressions tell us the “what” of the Christian faith, while more elaborate frescoes show us the way. Most central, of course, is the Good Shepherd, the person of Jesus Christ to whom we adhere. Beautiful paintings of baptism and Eucharist depict the means he left us to follow him into eternal life. And throughout we find many scenes of the Scriptures, from Jonah to the miracles of Christ.

 

The frescoes we visit are quite beautiful, but the setting is what makes them unique. For those who have never heard of Christ, or for those still searching, for the disillusioned, the sacred figures on tombs and walls become the occasion to present the kerygma anew. What they depict, the faith they express, is confirmed by the bones that lie near. Martyrs— the greatest witness of truth, that thousands have died for its sake.

 

Deacon Guilloux, from St. William of York in Stafford, is in his fourth year of theological studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

 

 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019