The Humble Splendor of the First Witnesses: The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus in Rome

Author: Stefania Falasca

The Humble Splendor of the First Witnesses

The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus in Rome

(At the beginning of the third century, Pope Zephyrinus entrusted the administration of the Church of Rome's first cemetery to his deacon, Callixtus. And so this place took the name of the man who would succeed Zephryinus as pope and die a martyr)

by Stefania Falasca

One April day in 1870, Mariano Armellini and Orazio Marucchi, who had just turned 18, were walking along Rome's via Nomentana when they encountered Pius IX returning to the city with a small entourage. Seeing the young men, laden with books and paper, the Pontiff stopped and asked them where they had been. Surprised and embarrassed, the boys answered that they had just visited the catacombs of Saint Agnes on the instructions of their teacher, Giovanni Battista de Rossi. Then Pius IX blessed them, saying "Dear children, go and pray to the holy martyrs in the catacombs, like the ancient Christians used to do so that we may be the stock of their precious blood. Study them, then, with love under the guidance of your good teacher". Pope Pius IX and Giovanni Battista de Rossi, father of Christian archeology, were the masterminds of efforts to bring Rome's catacombs to light. It is to their credit if today we can learn about and visit these places so dear to Christian memory because, for many centuries after the martyrs' relics were translated inside the city walls, most of the nearly 60 catacombs along the consular roads leading to Rome had been left in a state of abandon. Few even remembered their exact topographical location. De Rossi was principally credited with uncovering the largest and most famous of them all - the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, the first official underground cemetery under the direct jurisdiction of the Church of Rome and a cradle o f Christianity from the beginning. In 1849, t he archeologist was examining the surface of the Saint Callixtus area between the Appian Way and the via Ardeatina when he saw a badly damaged stone bearing the letters "NELIUS MARTYR". He intuited the missing letters as "CORNELIUS" and realized that it was part of the sepulchral inscription to the martyr Pope Comelius, who died in Civitavecchia in 253. Excavations confirmed this and within a few years he had uncovered all of six crypts of saints and martyrs: the crypt of the martyr Pope Comelius, of the young martyrs Calocerus and Parthenius the crypt of the Saint Pope Gaius, of the martyr Pope Eusebius and the two most famous and venerated memorials of all Rome's catacombs: the sepulchres of third century popes and the Crypt of Saint Cecilia.

It is here, in this place housing the tombs of so many martyr saints, victims of the persecutions of the first centuries, that we can grasp what Paul VI meant when, on September 12 1965 during a visit to Saint Callixtus, he spoke of the "humble splendor of the early Christian witnesses".

Place of Encounter, Memory and Prayer Already at the beginning of the second century, this area between the Appian Way and the via Ardeatine, was a place of burial, the property of the aristocratic Roman Cecili family. The owners of the land, who undoubtedly included Christian converts, had made it available to their brothers in faith. In fact, it was the members of wealthy noble families who made their homes available to Christian communities for the celebration of the Eucharist () as well as their land outside the city so that needy brethren could be decently buried. That is why many of Rome's catacombs are named for their owners - the Catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla, Pretextatus, for example. But at the beginning of the third century, the descendants of the Cecili family gave this cemetery personally to the bishop of Rome, Pope Zephyrinus (199-217) who entrusted its administration to his primary dean, Callixtus, the same able manager of the first "Christian banks". This, therefore, became the first cemetery for which the Church of Rome was directly responsible and it was destined ever to bear the name of one of the cleverest and most enterprising of Peter's successors. When he succeeded Zephyrinus as pope in 217, Callixtus had been the cemetery's custodian for about 20 years. He extended the so- called "primary area", the oldest part of the catacombs, to adorn the burial place of the young venerated martyr Cecilia, probably killed under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161- 180). In this area above ground, he had the sepulchre of the Saint Pope Zephyrinus erected and Zephyrinus became the first pope to be buried here. Callixtus, who died a martyr according to his during an uprising in the Trastevere quarter, was laid to rest in a cemetery on the via Aurelia, but 16 popes after him - nearly all from the period between Urban I (222-230) and Marcus (January 336-October 336) and many of them martyrs - were buried in the Saint Callixtus cemetery. The third century and the beginning of the fourth inaugurated the age of the great waves of persecution and particularly violent were the campaigns under the emperors Decius (249-251), under Valerianus (253-260) and under Diocletian (284-312). They all aimed at the Church's destruction by striking out at its hierarchy: popes, bishops, presbyters, deacons. So it was here on these tombs that the Christians in the capital of the Empire gathered to pray. It was here in this place, held in such veneration that it was second in importance only to the tombs of Peter and Paul, that they gathered during the periods of particularly violent persecution to celebrate their liturgy and participate in the Eucharist. The Roman authorities were well aware of these places and they twice decreed their confiscation. The first time, ordained by the Emperor Valerianus in 258, the confiscation lasted for two years and the second, under Diocletian in 303, for seven years.

During Valerianus' persecution, Pope Sixtus II was martyred on the land above these catacombs. The emperor had just emanated the edict confiscating Church property, including the , and prohibiting gatherings in these places. As he celebrated Mass, the pontiff was suddenly attacked and beheaded by the emperor's soldiers. The date was August 6, 258. "My dear brothers", writes Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, to inform African bishops of events in Rome, "the Emperor Valerianus has sent his order to the Senate that bishops, priests and deacons be immediately executed. Sixtus, our good and peaceable father, endured martyrdom together with four deacons on August 6 while in the area of the Cemetery". The exact place of the saintly pontiff's martyrdom is traceable, according to de Rossi's research, on the site of a small basilica known today as the "eastern tricora" because of its triple apse floor plan. It is likely that another venerated martyr of Saint Callixtus' catacombs was killed in this same wave of persecution - the young Tarcisius. According to tradition, Tarcisius was little more than a boy. He would often set off from this place to bring the Eucharist to Christians in prison. Caught by soldiers as he bore the consecrated Host, he preferred to die rather than forsake the body of Christ. His tomb must also be on the surface, on the site of another small basilica known as the "western tricora".

"Here lies a range of saints"

"O Saint Sixtus, remember Aurelius Repentinus in your prayers". "O Saintly Souls, remember Marcianus, Severus and all our brothers". These are the invocations and the names of Christians from the time of the persecutions. They are written on the tunnel which, at the immediate foot of a staircase, leads to the Crypt of the Popes. Other writings represent Christian symbols: the fish the anchor, Christ's monogram. Still more graffiti were etched by priests, recognizeable by the letters PRB () after their names. A frequent addition was the expression , poor sinner. The words of Bernard de Clairvaux spring to mind on reading these epigraphs "The memory of the saints arouses the desire in us to take joy in their companionship which is so sweet ... That the hope of incomparable happiness become reality, we need their help". In another epigraph this holy place is compared with the heavenly Jerusalem: "Jerusalem, city and adornment of the martyrs of God". We are now in the short stretch of tunnel which opens onto the "glorious tombs of the most illustrious of all the Christian necropolises", as de Rossi described the Crypt of the Popes. And there are the tombstones of six of Peter's successors: Pontianus, Antherus, Fabianus, Lucius, Eutichianus, Sixtus II and more names of priests and deacons martyred with Pope Sixtus II. When in the fourth century the persecutions came to an end, veneration of the martyrs became increasingly widespread and the Saint Pope Damasus (366-384) who was a great and devoted scholar of the martyrs, transformed this burial place into a church. In front of the tomb of Sixtus II there is a poem by Damasus in Latin hexameters, perhaps the most famous of all his compositions: "Know that here lies joined together a range of Saints/ The venerable tombs conserve their bodies,/ while the kingdom of heaven welcomed their chosen souls./ Here lie the companions of Sixtus who triumphed over the persecutor;/ here the range of popes who safeguard the altar of Christ;/ here the bishop who lived long in peace/ here the saint confessors sent from Greece;/ here young men and boys, and the old with their descendancy castes./ Here I Damasus, confess that I, too, would have wished to be buried here,/ but I feared disturbing the ashes of the Saints". Saint Damasus also had the Crypt of Saint Cecilia, immediately behind the Crypt of the Popes, adorned. The passage joining the two crypts was covered with marble slabs and its ceiling with mosaics. The body of the martyr was placed in the niche where her statue stands today. The body remained there until 821 when Pope Pascal 1(817824) had it translated to Trastevere to the basilica dedicated to her. The statue we see today is a copy of the celebrated work sculpted by Maderno in 1600 and represents the body of the martyr in the exact position in which it was found intact in 1599 when the sarcophagus was opened to identify the mortal remains. Her head was back to front and on her neck was the mark of the sword. Three fingers of her right hand were open and only one on the left. Dying, Cecilia sought to point with her fingers to her faith in the Trinity and in the Oneness of God.

Like the First Christians

In the fourth century, the catacombs of Saint Callixtus were developed to a considerable degree. Faithful preferred this among the Church's cemeteries for their repose alongside the tombs of the martyrs and in order to partake of their intercession. The practice of burying the dead in underground cemeteries continued until the early fifth century or until about the time of the sack of Rome by the Visigoth Alaric in 410. Between the fifth and ninth centuries and be fore many of the martyrs' relics were translated to various churches in Rome, these catacombs became a sanctuary visited b! thousands of pilgrims, according to the ancient medieval and the inscriptions conserved in the catacombs them selves. These early pilgrims walked down the so- called "staircase of the martyrs" and on to the Crypts of the Popes and of Saint Cecilia. They then headed for the various areas of the cemetery complex to pray on the tombs of the other popes and martyrs venerated here. In the candlelight, the painting adorning the tombs must have been splendid still, and together with the symbols, they constituted a visible appeal to the Story of salvation brought about by Jesus Christ.

Examples of these sacred illustration can still be found in a good state of conservation in the so-called "cubicles of the sacraments", in the area of the popes and Saint Cecilia. They are scenes of baptism and the Eucharist. Here, too, we find the oldest representation of baptism: the person administering it places his right hand on the head of another being baptized immersed in water.

The catacombs of Saint Callixtus also feature an image of Mary and it is one of the complex's oldest illustrations. It is to be found in the area known as Saint Sotheris, named for the martyr who was related to Ambrose, bishop of Milan. Represented in an arcosolium in a scene depicting the Epiphany, Our Lady is seated on a throne and holds the Christchild, dressed in a little tunic, on her lap.

In front of the Arcosolium of Our Lady, a passage leads to four communicating cubicles. Here, in the second half of the 19th century when excavations were under way, a group of friends - all pupils of Giovanni Battista de Rossi - used to gather here to pray together, as the first Christians did. This little group of young people had chosen these cubicles as their place of prayer because, given their architectonic conformation, they were suitable for the alternated chanting of Psalms. A communicating skylight allowed the voices to travel from one room to another. During Christmas 1878, four of these young people decided to celebrate the upcoming feast of the Epiphany on the Arcosolium of Our Lady. And it was on that occasion that they had the idea to launch an association aimed at fostering devotion to the martyrs of the catacombs. Thus was born the which enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Pope Pius IX. Pius IX once visited these catacombs. De Rossi tells in his memoirs of the Pontiff's visit to Saint Callixtus as soon as the archeologist informed him of the discovery of the Crypt of the Popes. "He came with a few people in the afternoon. I told him of the finds of sepulchral inscriptions to a few saints, the successors of the Prince of the Apostles. We then went into the crypt and I pointed out the tombstones to him that had been uncovered. Pius IX turned to me and said: 'So these, then, really are the tombstones of the first successors of Peter, the tombs of my predecessors who now repose here?'. I answered: 'Holiness, here are written the names of the martyr popes whom Damasus, who was indefaticably devoted to the martyrs, mentions in the poem I told you about'. At that point, Pius IX drew nearer, visibly moved. He took the marble slabs in his hands and read the names. At the sight of those names he reddened with emotion and his eyes filled with tears. Then he knelt on the ground and remained absorbed in prayer". It was May 11, 1854. For the first time in nearly 1,000 years, a successor of Peter had set foot in these places made holy by the blood of so many witnesses.

This article was taken from the No. 4, 1996 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321-2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.