This is the original burial chamber of Saint Cecilia (the carved likeness of her burial pose was a gift from an American family) in the Catacombs of San Callisto in Rome. Saint Cecilia was a wealthy Roman citizen and wife. She was found when the catacombs were excavated in the 19th century and her bones were moved to Trastevere.
Note: this is the first part of a two part piece that I split due to length.
The United States now devolving into a place where the more base and primal human forces are asserting themselves and pretty much repressing Christian virtue and practice as enshrined by law, has been very much lamented by a number of members of this group blog.
It has also been pointed out, by yet other members of The Constitution Club, that Christianity has a 2,000 year history, roughly, and not all of it was pleasant. Christians were not always accepted and, in fact, were persecuted in the beginning (and in the last 250 years, but we’ll save that for post 2). Co-authors NEO and Rudy Carrera have correctly pointed out that this history is in no way peculiar to protestantism, and in fact is really claimed more by Catholics and to an extent those of the Eastern Churches. Good and bad, atrocities on both sides, politics, hurt feelings, and all sorts of human failings aside, until the Great Schism was complete in the 13th century, the history of east and west is the same.
As Americans in the 21st century, the Catholic Church is seen as this HUGE, global, corporate entity with amazing power and reach over millions of people and having untouchable wealth, and from what many people know of western civilization history, it’s always been that way. But, really, that is an incorrect impression. For the first 300 years of its existence, in the very city where the bishop has always been considered to be head of the Church, (in the west, anyway) the Catholic Church lived underground. And in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, that was a literal truth.
Looking at just Rome, not Asia Minor or Asia or Northern Africa or parts of modern day France, Germany and other European sites which were all evangelized at the same time, the Christians of the day, in order to survive and worship as they were taught, dug huge labyrinths of tunnels under the outskirts of Rome, and in some places in Rome, through the volcanic soil. We now call these tunnels and chambers The Catacombs.
Having visited the Catacombs at San Callisto, one of the larger sites actually open to the public, I can honestly say, the tour teaches new appreciation for what the early Christians were willing to do and suffer through in order to be sure that the Church lived. At that time, Christians were considered really peculiar people. They got together for these funky rituals where they claimed to be eating the Body of Christ and drinking his Precious Blood (we still do this). Wealth and power on earth were not considered all that important. They ate fish, fish and more fish. They actually fed and clothed the homeless. To the Jews from whence this group started, Christians were heretics. Women, and a fair number of men, were perfectly happy to remain virgins and offered the “deprivation” as a sacrifice to God. (And only one God? What’s up with that?) There were no animal sacrifices. And, in what we would consider a great liberation, cloven hoof animals were fair game for a meat source.
These people were weird. On top of it, the Man they worshipped, who was God, and is God, was a bit of a rabble rouser and hung out with known prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors. The governor of the region where He lived Crucified Him. He must have done something wrong.
And to make matters worse, the Christians, in their evangelization, I’m sure told the Romans of the day that for eternal salvation, they had to give up their way of life. (It doesn’t matter what age you live in, no one appreciates that.)
All of this invited hatred and ridicule, and Christians were persecuted in their everyday lives by the people of the city. Nero, taking cues from below, even tried to blame the burning of Rome on Christians, which really got the Romans going on the anti-Christian bandwagon (prior to that it was really just the more confrontational Jews that were willing to throw stones). Christians were blamed for every little ill that came along. We all know that Christians were used as lion bait in the Colosseum and other blood sport venues, but not everyone knows that exile and ostracization from public life and baths were common and that it was very honorable to be martyred for love of Christ. (So much so that various emperors and governors wouldn’t oblige Christians when they asked to die. According to the secular leaders, martyrdom had to be involuntary, which ironically is theologically correct.)
And so it was that Roman Christians dug the catacombs and used them for everything from ceremony to burial until Roman emperors were able to control the persecution. At San Callisto, there’s even a chamber that had been the main church for the Bishops of Rome, or Pope, to officially say Mass. Their seals are carved into the stone on the walls (they look a lot like modern papal seals, too). Not every emperor was hostile, some were even friendly having family who were Christians, but it was not until the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century that Christianity emerged as a completely legal way of life. Constantine gave the Bishop of Rome the Lateran Church at the time (the current building is known as St. John Lateran, Cathedral and Major Basilica) and it remains the Cathedral of Rome. On Vatican Hill (technically not in Rome proper as it is outside the city walls) was built the original St. Peter’s over the grave of that Apostle (it was excavated in 1947. Yes, he’s really there). It was replaced in the 16th century with the building we now know.
That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of family squabbles during those years and that major heresies (such as denial of the Divinity of Christ, the Trinity and denial of what we now call Transubstantiation) weren’t part of the mix, not to mention the question of Scripture had yet to be settled, but in the west, Christianity did not advance significantly as a social movement until over 300 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. In the succeeding centuries, those sent to the north and west to evangelize, like St. Patrick, and St. Augustine of Canterbury first sought to convert leadership in order to facilitate the conversion of the masses who, like the work-a-day Romans, were perfectly happy being the pagan heathens we now consider them to have been.
The rest of that time is far more detailed, but for the purposes of understanding that Christianity has not always been accepted since the beginning, it will do. As for growth and evangelization AFTER the fall of Rome to being the social and lawful norm, it was a long, steep climb.
Part 2 coming soon!
Tags: catacombs, Catholic Church, Christianity, constantine, fish eaters, great schism, nero, religion, rome burns, saint cecilia, san callisto, st augustine of canterbury, st cecilia, st patrick, trastevere, underground, virgin, western civilization history