Going to Mass last Friday, the feast of St Philip Neri, I read that he had “a mystical experience in the catacombs in 1544, when he ‘felt himself divinely filled with the power of the Spirit’, causing his heart to dilate.”
Seemingly this incident wasn’t known to Fr James Spencer Northcote, author of The Roman Catacombs, who relates in his fascinating book that “From the middle of the ninth century till nearly the end of the sixteenth, the Roman Catacombs had no history and were practically unknown.” Then, in 1578, some labourers accidentally broke into a gallery of ancient graves. Unfortunately, this led to many precious relics and memorials being destroyed or vandalised.
First published in 1877 and republished this year by Sophia Institute Press, Fr Northcote’s book reminds us of the lives and often heroic deaths of our Christian forefathers in Rome many centuries ago. He mentions that there at least 40 or 50 catacombs in the hills around Rome. Originally built by designated Christian “fossors” (diggers) to bury their dead, their use lasted for 300 years, until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion. By AD 410, burials had ceased for good.
It seems that the Roman government did not interfere with the catacombs before the middle of the third century and not even then as places of burial: only when they came to be used as places of worship and assembly for their outlawed religion did they attract the severity of the pagan administration. For instance, the Emperor Numerian, learning that Christian families were secretly assembling for Mass in a catacomb on the Via Salara, deliberately had the entrance blocked off by a huge mound of rubble, thus burying the worshippers alive. The sacred vessels for Mass and the skeletons of men, women and children were only rediscovered during the pontificate of Pope Damasus in AD 370.
Fr Northcote’s book includes illustrations and descriptions of the famous symbols found in the catacombs, such as the Good Shepherd, the anchor, the dove and the fish. The fish symbol in particular was “in universal use throughout the Church during its first 300 years…it became as it were a part of the very catechism – every baptised Christian seems to have been familiar with it.”
Also, in contrast to pagan memorials, the Christian ones did not record the status of the dead, such as “freedman” or “slave”; baptism had made such distinctions irrelevant.
A visit to Rome is incomplete without a pilgrimage to some of these holy places, sacred to the memory of Christians who were prepared to die for their faith. We are reminded of their courage and steadfastness when we hear in the news of Christians martyred by Islamist terrorists.
In my missal I have a holy picture honouring the 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians working in Libya who were captured and beheaded by ISIS in February 2015. The inscription states that “They were offered the chance to save their lives by embracing Islam and all of them refused, confessing Christ and dying for him as true Christian martyrs.”