Welcome to the Catacombs of St Callistus
This is a rather serene place with green lawns, paved avenues, good amounts of shade and stone edging which we gratefully sat down upon.
It was welcome relief after being in the very hot sun most of the day at the Colosseum and trudging through the remains of the Roman Forum.
Before St Callistus was pope, while he was still a deacon, he was entrusted with the care of this cemetery which bears his name. By then the cemetery already held many tombs of the earliest popes and martyrs, as well as the non-martyred. It was in this place St Cecilia was first buried until her body was transferred some 600 years later into the basilica built over her home in Rome. There are some 15 hectares of underground cemetery in this place, and 5 levels of catacombs.
After the claustrophobic conditions walking through the catacombs, we were grateful for this open-air Mass location. The custodians of the catacombs are very strict about no photographs being taken within them. That’s why behind the altar you can see a mosaic containing an image of bread and a fish – an early Christian symbol of the Eucharist. Above that are pictures and diagrams to remind us of what we saw down there. Including the early Christian symbols and iconography, the horizontal burials in niches, and how some parts are long, thin corridors and some parts open out into chapel areas the size of an average lounge room.
Here’s larger versions of two of those explanatory posters. We were shown these in the preparatory area before we went down into the catacombs.
On the left-hand side you can see motifs of the Good Shepherd.
Of the fish which was a symbol of Jesus during times of persecution. Although if the fish is large it can refer to Jonah and the whale, and be a symbol of resurrection.
Of the chi-rho combination of Greek letters that look like a capital P covered with a capital X, which two letters begin the phonetics of Christ.
Five Greek capital letters together: Iota for the first Greek sound of the name of Jesus; Chi for the first Greek sound of the name Christ, which in turn means anointed one; Theta for the first Greek sound of God; Upsilon as the first Greek sound for the name of son – without the silent h; and Sigma for the first Greek sound of the name Saviour. ICQUS.
A symbol of an anchor is for Jesus the anchor of our hope.
A symbol of a woman with hands raised in prayer, and sheep. A woman with hands raised is a symbol of the Church at prayer, depending on the depiction it can also refer at the same time to Mary, mother of Jesus, who is the model of the Church at prayer.
The fronds of palm are symbols of martyrdom.
Doves can symbolize baptism, peace, Christian souls.
On the right-hand side you can see drawings about how the catacombs were built and decorated; and how the entry points were small and easy to miss, and how they got light into the larger chapel spaces.
Vincent Cavanagh #bbwyd
30 July 2023, 6.13pm Italy | 31 July 2023, 2.13am Sydney
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