In the Beginning, There Were Catacombs


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!

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15 replies

  1. Really good article, CL, and fascinating too. My only quibble, and it’s minor and unimportant, would be that most of what I’m seeing lately indicates that the Scriptures were fairly well settled within a generation or two of Christ himself, not that controversy doesn’t rage, and always has, especially in the non-Chalcedeon churches, it seems.

    • Uh, I don’t think that Scripture would have been settled that fast because none of the Gospels would have been written yet,except maybe Mark. They were written down to keep The Word from getting corrupted because after a couple of generations the stories were getting skewed. The earliest books written were the Epistles of St. Paul. St. John was a very old man when he wrote his gospel around 90 A.D. That was why the 100 year mark was one criterion for inclusion. There were all kinds of books running around and they had to whittle them down to what was actually sacred.

      At least this was the version we always learned.

      • I’ll easily yield to superior knowledge :-)

        My point was mostly that the OP sorta read to me as if we were still dinking around with inclusions and exclusions for a couple of centuries-I doubt that’s what you meant (in fact, I’m sure it wasn’t) but it could be read that way. Like I said, an unimportant quibble, more semantics than factual.

    • Good post.

      I’ve never bought the idea that it took generations to write down the books of the Bible. I think Mathew, Mark, Luke, John and all the rest wrote it down just like we would if we were writing a letter or a book. We know for a fact that Paul wrote his work down immediately, they were actual letters written to various contemporary churches. They may have been copied many times and passed around but I see no evidence at all that that they were not contemporary recordings of the events put down within just a few years if not sooner of their happening.

      And I didn’t know that not believing in Transubstantiation was a “major heresy.” Of course, as an evangelical Protestant I’m probably ‘guilty’ of a few…. (:

      • Nor do I, and more to the point, most of the scholars seem to be saying much the same thing. Some are saying that it looks to them like Mary had some input to Luke, which given what’s there, seems reasonable-books may have accreted over the first century or so but, I think the books themselves have the integrity of the author, and if we go much past a hundred years we start running into the earliest heresies.

      • It’s amazing how different history is taught depending upon perspective. :)

        A few things about the gospels as Fr. S taught us all those years ago. Mark was the first one written and it was at least 30 years after the Crucifixion. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source as well as an anonymous source called “QueUe” or something like that which is why they have passages that pretty much match. At this time in history who or what QueUe was is lost to us. The Gospels were written for specific communities, too. Acts of the Apostles is Luke volume II as it took two scrolls to write it all down (I always loved that “Luke volume II”), since at the time it was all written on scrolls. John was in exile when he wrote his gospel, which was the last book of the Bible written, and the date I’ve always seen was roughly 90. St. John was the only writer who was witness to a lot of what happened, too. We know he was a very old man when he died. Of course, this is what the scripture scholars have passed down for centuries. Is it correct??

        Yes, the heresies do include not believing in Transubstantiation, among other Eucharistic teachings. There’s quite a list, in fact. ;) Although, I will say it is much easier to believe when one has experienced the healing power and peace of Eucharist first hand. It’s impossible to really describe, but it is real. And at the time, I really needed it.

      • As for the Blessed Mother having been a source for Luke…if the dates of the writing 80-85 or so are correct, she would have been either about 100 years old or gone from this world. Firm dates on Mary’s earthly life are simply not known, although the feasts originated in the east, believe it or not. The only western reference in the first century that has a firm date is the Pillar story from what is now Spain in 40 AD, and that was a bi-location instance. By Sacred Tradition, Mary’s major contribution to scripture and literature is the Stations of the Cross as supposedly she walked them whenever she was in Jerusalem.

        Until the 4th century all the records are really spotty.

      • It is a major heresy in terms of how Orthodox and Catholics see it, but these days, it’s something that, once a real council is ever called among all Christians, that can be worked out and discussed. This was what councils were originally for. We ought to consider all going back into that model.


  2. Well, when Christians weren’t being persecuted–usually because they were in charge directly or indirectly, I think–they tended to do some persecuting themselves, right? An unfortunate human pattern…We really don’t much go for middle classes in our history, economic or otherwise, from what I can see. So they don’t last, as ours is showing now.
    The roman Church is a historically unique human organization at 2,000 years and still going..Persecution seems the coming pattern once again, but it has often been a purifying process, for Jews as well as for Christians. And the Church is well characterized as: “An anvil, that has worn out many hammers…”

    • Jack, that’s true. We did the thing we should not have: took revenge for the horrid abuse suffered thanks to pagans and wayward Jews who hated Christianity. Cooler heads would prevail, with occasional blood-lettings happening in pockets until the middle of the next millennium, and that, again, thank to feelings of harassment and betrayal. We Orthodox know a few things about being purified over and over: from Jewish enemies who hated their Jewish brethren who converted, to Nero, Diocletian, Julian the Apostate, Islam, the Ottomans, interfaith warfare during the Crusades which did no good, and Communism. It’s a touch tiring to suffer so much for one’s faith, but considering the Master did so much more for us that we can never repay, it’s a suffering that’s proven to be well worth it.

  3. My other quibble is the comment about, “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.” Thank you guys warmly for the credit, as this place remains crucial reading even if I can’t participate the way I used to. That being said, we together, as Orthodox and Catholics, can claim this business together, as it is correct that we were in union, albeit contentiously, until 1054. The excommunications each church gave to the other was lifted, thank God, in 1965. The fence is continually being mended. There’s so much history our Protestant friends can learn when talking to us old geezers of Christianity.

    • Yes, but the Schism wasn’t considered by the people of the times as being irreparable until the 13th century. I know talks are ongoing and the best thing we can do is bury the hatchet and find some way through the theological issues, the few that there are, and governance, which, IMO, is going to be a bigger quagmire. I have a feeling we are about 100 years off depending on a number of geopolitical factors. And we in the west have to make it a point to not abandon Constantinople again. Figuratively, if not literally. That really was a cowardly move.

  4. Just so you know, the Rakija King is in fact me.


  1. After the Catacombs: Spreading Christianity « The Constitution Club
  2. Back to the Catacombs? Not Yet « The Constitution Club

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