We left the breezy outdoors and filed slowly through the doorway that led to ancient stone stairs. Arranged along the walls were broken fragments of stone sculptures and carvings–the remains of ancient coffin covers. At end of the stairs, we stepped into a well-lit room which was, we were told, an ancient subterranean Christian basilica, erected to honor to two martyrs. Several stone columns–which did not match each other because, as the guide informed us, the Christians were poor and could only afford to reuse discarded material–stood in rows near the center of the room, and at the head of the rows was a small sanctuary with an altar. The air was cool and pleasant and the light was quite clear because of several windows high near the roof; more broken inscriptions and sculptures lined the walls, which were formed of rough, pale bricks. The writing and the carvings were simple and almost rustic; they had none of the elegance, proportionality or smoothness of other Roman sculptures. The simple altar was adorned with plain white candles and draped with red in honor of the martyrs whom the early Christians had laid to rest behind the sanctuary.
Our guide explained that with the exception of the small basilica, the catacombs were always primarily burial grounds, never truly hiding places or a place to say Mass for the Christians, except in extreme necessity, because the stench of the decaying bodies and the poor lighting made the underground passages unfit for human habitation. The catacombs were chosen as burial grounds because the soft rock made it easy to hew out rough passages and graves, even up to four or five levels below the surface. Lighting was very poor in ancient times; they had only small oil lamps which would burn for about twenty minutes. The tangle of corridors, corners, and curves once made getting lost all too easy, he added. Also, there were very few intact tombs left in the catacombs; most had been callously destroyed after false rumors of wealth had circulated centuries earlier; hence the broken tomb covers and fragments of inscribed stone that we had seen arranged along the walls.
Then, we entered the catacombs.
Other places I had seen in Rome–churches and sacred sights–instantly inspired awe and reverence by the magnificence of their artwork and architecture and by the holiness of their history. This was entirely different. The catacombs inspired not so much reverence as…well, fear. All foolish superstitions and sensitivities aside, this was not like visiting any other holy place, or even any other graveyard; this was a simple and direct confrontation with the reality of death. Instantly as we entered the narrow passageway I noticed the musty, dank smell, the tightness of the walls; the roof was barely a foot above my head, and some doorways required me to bend down to enter. On every side, gaping, elongated holes showed up as darker patches in the brown walls: graves.
The lighting was much dimmer; sparsely-placed little electric bulbs were just bright enough to light my path along the irregular floor. The guide, without speaking, ushered us into a close room lined with emptied tombs. I tried to shy away from the walls, but when we had packed ourselves in, it was unavoidable for me to back up directly against an ancient grave–three graves, actually, each cut out narrowly above the other in the wall. Pushed in as close as I was to it, with the rocky roof brushing against my head, I was dumbly wondering at the tiny proportions of the tomb in my line of sight until I suddenly realized that it must have been for a child.
“Now, I will explain the graves,” announced the guide. “The ones with the arched openings,” he said, pointing with his flashlight, “were used as common graves where up to eight people could be buried together. The smaller tombs were for one or two people, and the smallest tombs were for children and babies…Now imagine, if you can,” he said, pausing and placing his hands on either side of the cramped doorway, “What it would be like down here in the days of the early Christians. The smell, the odor of the decaying corpses, here in the darkness.”
As we left the tiny room, we began to walk single file through winding curves and down darkening steps, descending deeper into the earth. We passed numberless narrow graves. I began to wonder how any poor soul would be able to find the grave of their loved one amid the masses of indistinguishable tombs. Suddenly we stopped, and I was, to my dismay, halted in an especially tight turning of the passageway; the low roof and the walls felt too close, and the light was so dim I could barely see the person in front of me.
“Why are we stopped?” I asked impatiently, barely controlling the panic in my voice. Two persons who had been at the head of the group began squeezing their way back–they were not feeling well, they said.
“But its alright,” announced one of them as they passed me,”There’s nothing wrong, I just need air…you can go on.”
I didn’t reply, because although I intended to go on, I thoroughly understood how they felt.
At last, after descending further and passing other dark sections of the graveyards, we mounted a narrow staircase and reemerged in the underground basilica.
I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. Whoever believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live, and he that liveth and believeth in me shall not die for ever.
As we passed again the red-draped altar, I contemplated the staunch faith of the early Christians. It is one thing to walk in a graveyard filled with flowers in the sunlight and say you believe in the resurrection of the dead. It is another thing entirely that the martyrs did: announce their faith before a world that would kill them for doing so, knowing what awaited them. They would not get a white-washed Roman memorial with elegant statues; after being tortured and killed, they would be buried–wrapped up, sealed tightly away, buried— in a sightless, confining tomb next to another decaying body, four levels away from the sunlight in the miserable, malodorous catacombs.
They knew all this, and facing that reality of death, they still confessed before the powers of the earth: I believe in Jesus Christ.
in the Resurrection of the Body,
and life everlasting. Amen.