Mike Aquilina

Notes from Underground

Friday June 16th 2006, 6:52 pm

My little sister Susie passed through town about a month ago. It’s nice for me to be able to call her my “little sister,” even though I’m the youngest sibling in the family. Susie’s one of the few people in my orbit who are actually shorter than I am. She also looks twenty years younger than the least of her brothers.

Now retired from teaching, she and husband Jim globetrot a bit. Susie announced during this visit that she would, that very week, have a one-day layover in Rome, with a little time for browsing ruins. She had seen St. Peter’s and a few other places. What site would provide the best experience in just a few hours?

Without hesitation, I said “The catacombs.” She took up my suggestion to visit those ancient burial chambers “near the mines.” And I hear through her son, my neighbor-nephew Mark, that she and Jim loved the place.

You will, too, even if all you can take is a virtual tour.

The Vatican website hosts some fine pages from the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology. The text is informative — dealing with themes in the development of doctrine as well as art history. Unfortunately, it’s almost all in Italian. Still, the photos are worth the trip, and they speak a universal — that is, catholic — Christian language. See here and here.

For great information and still more great photos, visit “The Christian Catacombs of Rome,” run by the Salesian Institute San Callisto. The site is multilingual, and it includes wonderful essays on the spirituality of the catacombs and on life in the big city circa 250 A.D. — not to mention primary texts from the age of the martyrs, and recent papal statements on Christian archeology. There’s another nice synopsis here.

In April, the Vatican and the University of Bordeaux announced the discovery of a remarkably intact underground mass grave. Last month, the London Telegraph provided further reporting on the find:

The Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology is overseeing the dig. Its chief inspector of catacombs, Raffaella Giuliani, said: “This is the earliest example of such a mass burial. Usually two or three bodies at the most were put into holes dug out of the rock in the catacombs, but in these case we have several rooms filled with skeletons.

“They are placed one on top of the other and not in a disorderly fashion. They have been carefully buried, with dignity, but the puzzle is why so many at a time?”

The skeletons were dressed in fine robes, many containing gold thread, and wrapped in sheets covered with lime, as was common in early Christian burials.

The discovery was made at the Catacomb of SS Peter and Marcellinus on the ancient Via Labicana in south-east Rome.

But none of this is news, really. The Fathers themselves already showed a deep devotion to the catacombs. There they stood on holy ground. Here’s Jerome’s take: “Countless are the graves of saints I have seen in the city of Romulus … You ask for the inscriptions cut on their tombs, and their individual names, but it is hard for me to be able to repeat them. Such great multitudes of the righteous did ungodly rage devour while Trojan Rome still worshipped the gods of her fathers. Many a grave is lettered and tells the martyr’s name or bears some epitaph, but there are mute marbles too, which shut up the tombs in silence and only indicate the number; you may learn what masses of men’s bodies lie gathered together in heaps, but read the name of none of them. I remember finding that the remains of sixty persons were buried there under one massive stone, whose names Christ alone knows, since he has added them to the company of his friends.”

And Prudentius: “Not far outside the wall, near the belt of cultivation just beyond it, yawns a cave which goes deep down in dark pits. Into its hidden depths a downward path shows the way by turning, winding steps, with the help of light from a source unseen; for the light of day enters the first approach as far as the top of the cleft and illumines the entrance; then as you go forward easily you see the dark night of the place fill the mysterious cavern with blackness, but you find openings let into the roof far above, so as to throw bright rays down into the chasm. However doubtful you may feel of this fabric of narrow halls running back on either side in darksome galleries, still through the holes pierced in the vault many a gleam of light makes its way down to the hollow interior of the disembowelled mount, and thus underground it is granted to see the brightness of a sun which is not there, and have the benefit of its light. Such is the place of concealment to which the body of Hippolytus was committed and by it has been set an altar dedicated to God.”

I got the patristic texts here.

And if ever you get to Rome, do drop in. My colleagues at the St. Paul Center and I will likely be taking a group to Rome next May. I’ll be speaking, and so will Scott and Kimberly Hahn, among others. If you’re interested in joining us, please drop me a note with your contact information, and I’ll keep you posted as we complete our plans.