Rome Pilgrimage Day 3: Catacombs, Martyrs
by Steve Ray on October 13, 2007
Videos moved to my Pilgrimage website here
Everyone looks forward to visiting the catacombs with a special excitement and it was no different today. The Romans buried the dead in what they called a “necropolis”—city of the dead. Christians called them cemeteries, sleeping chambers. They “deposited” the dead because they knew Jesus would come back to make a “withdrawal.” We drove out the far south of Rome, out through the ancient city walls and down the Via Appia Antica. Here we visited two of the oldest and largest of the Roman Catacombs.
First we took a walk for about 30 minutes along the Via Appia to experience the road upon which the Roman armies marched for centuries, but more importantly, the road upon which the Apostles walked—Peter and Paul.
The Catacombs of St. Sebastian are named this because the converted Roman soldier who was martyred for the faith was interred here. During the persecutions of the early centuries the bones of Peter and Paul were kept down here for a while. This is affirmed by the 640 graffiti scratched into the plaster with words written in Latin, Greek, and Aramaic (the language of Jesus). The graffiti says things like “Peter and Paul, pray for us,” or Peter and Paul, pray for victory.” It is interesting for Catholics to realize that Christians were making intercession to the saints from the earliest times.
Protestants should not ask Catholics “When did you start praying to the saints,” rather, Catholics should ask Protestants “When did you STOP praying to the saints.”
We then had Mass underground where numerous famous saints prayed before us, like St. Philip Neri, under ground in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, one of the 7 pilgrimage churches in Rome.
Next we walked a beautiful pathway with the Stations of the Cross to the oldest official Christian cemetery of Rome—the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. It has at least four levels and the galleries reach a length of almost twelve miles! There are as many as half a million tombs! It is the largest and most magnificent of the Roman catacombs.
We visited the Church of Quo Vadis where the tradition says that Peter was fleeing Rome to avoid marytdom. He met Jesus carrying a cross on the Via Appia heading into Rome. Peter asked "Lord, where are you going?" (Domine, Quo Vadis?). Jesus said he was going into Rome to be crucified again, since Peter was refusing to do so. Peter was reproved and turned back to Rome, reentered the Mamertine Prison and was crucified in Nero's Circus head down since he said he was not worthy to die as his Savior had died.
We had a delicious lunch at Ristorante Cecilia Metella (it’s hard to find a bad restaurant in Rome!). Everyone had the afternoon free to explore, pray, shop, rest or go on optional site trips.
After this tour we walked back down the path to St. Sebastians Catacombs, where we crossed the Via Appia and up a winding road to the Ristorante Cicilia Mettela which was a gorgeous outside dining experience near a fountain and under the canopy of vines. It was a great meal for conversation, laughter and serious talk. We had white wine, bruschetta, pasta, pork, salad and potatoes before a desert of fruit topped with gelato—which is better than ice cream.
The Church of San Clemente (bones of Apostolic Fathers Ignatius and Clement of Rome) was next. It is one of our favorite churches in Rome and is overseen by a good Dominican friend of ours, Fr. John Cunningham. This May we spent a lot of time in this church filming for our documentary Apostolic Fathers, Handing on the Faith. I was happy to give Fr. John a finished copy of our documentary.
We venerated the bones of Ignatius and Clement under the high altar. Ignatius wrote 7 letters while on his way here from Antioch in Syria. He was eaten by lions 300 yards away in the Roman Colosseum. Then we descended deep under the church to view the actual streets and buildings of ancient Rome. There is a fourth century basilica under the current church and below that the streets of ancient Rome. The pagan Mithraic temple is one of the best preserved in Rome.
Next we went to a church to honor the martyrs. Some people call this church morbid, gross, or even disgusting, but Santo Stefano Rotundo is another of our favorite churches. We bring our pilgrims here to impress upon them the horrendous price that was paid by the early Christians to pass the Catholic faith on to us. There is no other church like this one.
It is round, the Roman way of celebrating victory, and all around the inside walls are huge, full-colored paintings of martyrs suffering for the faith. Some are raked with sharp instruments, others dismembered, eaten by beasts, burned in fires, boiled in oil, ripped in two, dragged behind horses, and more. No one leaves this church unaffected.
The remainder of the day was free for people to rest, shop, pray at the many churches, or whatever they wanted to do. Dinner and then bed to rest up for another busy day–a trip to Assisi.