Reliving 18 July
Oh yeah. The heat continues. Good times though. Today was probably my favorite activity yet. We took a bus ride across the city this morning for a tour and Mass in the catacombs of Priscilla. Let me say first of all that the temperature down there was a balmy 70 degrees, talk about glorious splendid-ity.
Don't quote me, but if I remember correctly these are the oldest and/or largest catacombs in Rome. Used in the 2nd thru 4th centuries. And they are EXPANSIVE. I mean, really really big. Get this, three levels deep, over ten miles of underground tunnels, and over 40,000 tombs line the walls. Whoa!! The experience was like a real life Indiana Jones movie. The bummer for y'all is that we weren't allowed to take pictures inside the catacombs, so I can't show you the sweetness. But if you ever make your way to Rome, this would DEFINITELY be something to put on your to-do list.
We walked down a flight of stairs and entered a carved out tunnel of rock, looked like a smooth-walled mine shaft. It was tall and wide enough for maybe two people to walk closely side by side. The way slanted downward and we just kept going lower and lower until eventually we hit a crossroads where the catacombs began. I would estimate that the first level was somewhere between 40 and 50 feet below grade. I dunno, Rome is pretty hilly, though; probably shallower at other parts. The type of rock in Priscilla's catacombs is very common around Rome, the Romans loved it and had been using it for centuries. What makes it so special is that the rock is relatively soft when mined out, but becomes hard as it is exposed to the air, hence why these catacombs are so stable and have remained intact for 18 centuries.
The tombs themselves were just crevices dug out of the wall, about five or six feet long, maybe 18 inches tall and two feet deep. People must have been smaller back then. Tombs were stacked four or five high before reaching the ceiling. Bodies were wrapped in linen and placed in a tomb, then they were closed in with stucco. Usually a piece of marble with their name went over the stucco, or it was painted like canvas. So back in the day, the catacombs would have been very colorful.
The catacombs were important in early Christianity not only because they provided a safe meeting place to celebrate Mass together, but because even in death the community wanted to remain a community. All were buried together, the rich and the poor, the saint and sinner. We know from the excavations and records that Priscilla's catacombs were the burial place of at least 350 martyrs, over 100 canonized Saints, and five popes. These tombs also contain the earliest dated fresco of Jesus under the title Good Shepherd and the earliest depiction of Mary, who is nursing the Infant Jesus.
The coolest part for me was being able to suddenly walk right by the tomb of St. Philomena. It really struck me that she was just one slot along the wall among thousands of others. How beautiful to think about the hiddenness of an ordinary poor girl being buried in the midst of all others, who then became a Saint because God showed the world her pure interior love for Him. She is like that sleeper car you try to race at the stoplight because you have all the flashy gadgets and tune-ups, and then get smoked off the line because the engine under her hood is twice as large as yours. The sleeper Saint... that might be the greatest way to become one I think.
This afternoon we took two city busses out of town to take a tour of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls Basilica and the adjoining cemetery. Another splendid church. It was actually bombed during WWII, but has since been restored. What makes this church so extremely awesome is that it houses the bodies of three of our oldest martyr Saints: St. Ignatius of Antioch (107 A.D.), St. Justin Martyr (165 A.D.), and St. Lawrence (257 A.D.). If that's not cool, I don't really know what is.
Ignatius was martyred in Rome by being thrown to wild animals (probably in Circus Maximus?). Justin Martyr was killed by Marcus Aurelius (I don't know how), and Lawrence was killed by Emperor Valerian. He has a pretty cool story.
As it goes, the Roman officials demanded that he bring all the treasures of the Church and hand them over to the Emperor immediately. Lawrence acquiesced and asked for just a short time to prepare everything. He then proceeded to gather up the sick, the poor, and the downtrodden of Rome and brought them all to the Forum saying, "Here, this is the treasure of the Church".
What a great truth to reflect on. Needless to say, however, Valerian was not amused, so he had Lawrence grilled. Quick with his wit to the very end, on his death bed being burned alive he yelled out to the Roman guards, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side".
In one of the pictures below you can see the marble table that his body was laid upon after they pulled him off the grill. The stain you see is Lawrence's own blood.
|Crypt under the main altar. Under the red covering are the bodies of our three brothers. You are able to go in and pray right next to them (oh yes I did).|
|Hey I got it to work! The blood of a martyr, folks.|
|Below and behind the altar. Entirely a mosaic, floor to ceiling all the way around.|
|Blessed Pope Pius IX is buried here, too. Americans should love him, he officially established and gave the land for the North American College. His generosity is one big reason we Americans have a place to study here in Rome.|
The cemetery was also incredible. Biggest and EASILY the most beautiful cemetery I've ever been in, (for those of you who know how big the one is in Ann Arbor where I used to live on Geddes, right there by the Arboretum, this one is probably four or five times that size). And talk about the credentials you must need to get in here! I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves.
|A modest tombstone.|
|A little better...|
|May as well give yourself a roof.|
|Now we're talkin'. I mean, why not add a bust?|
|You could just buy yourself your own mausoleum. Add some walls to that roof!|
|So this is what the NAC did. I think someone donated it to the College?|
|We get to be right next to the Vatican mausoleum.|
At this point, I am ever sore from all the hills and walking (but getting in shape!) and still suffering from the heat. But I loved spending time today with some of the great brothers and sisters who have gone before us from the beginning and witnessed to Christ with their lives. What an opportunity to live in the city of the Saints, the ones who we say have consecrated the ground of Rome by their blood.