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The Emptying of the Catacombs

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the feast day of Ss Primus and Felician, who were martyred for the Faith around the year 297. Their traditional story is not regarded as historically reliable, but there is no doubt of the fact of their martyrdom, of the antiquity of the devotion to them. They are said to have been brothers of the Roman patrician class who devoted themselves to works of charity; Primus was quite elderly when they were arrested for the practice of the Christian Faith. The judge who tried them separated them from each other, and tried to convince each one to sacrifice to the pagan gods by saying that they other had already done so. Neither of them was deceived, and so they were taken to a place about 12 miles from Rome near the town of Nomentum, and there beheaded. After the end of the persecutions, a church was built over the site of their burial, which no longer exists.

What makes these two Saints particularly noteworthy for us today is that they were the very first whose relics were removed from the site of their original burial and brought into a Roman church. This took place around the year 645, in the reign of Pope Theodore I, and is important for two reasons. The first is that is shows that by the mid-7th century, Christianity had definitively broken many of the ancient Roman taboos about the treatment of the dead. The foremost of these would be the very ancient law which required that they be kept apart from the living in their own places, the “necropolises”, or cities of the dead, outside the walls of the cities of the living. Furthermore, the Romans had many prohibitions of both a legal and religious nature about moving bodies at all from their original burial places, which were now also evidently set aside.

This in turn would make possible one of the most important shifts in the history of early Christian archeology, the gradual emptying of the catacombs. The Roman prohibition on burying the dead inside the city walls applied to the Christians as much as to anybody else, which is why they made their underground cemeteries, which we now call the catacombs, outside the city. For the first three centuries after the end of the persecution, these cemeteries continued to be used for burials, but also became pilgrimage sites for those who wanted to venerate the tombs of the martyrs buried within them. By the time of Pope Theodore, the instability of Italy made such pilgrimages out into the countryside potentially very dangerous, and part of his motivation for moving the martyrs into Rome itself would certainly have been so that pilgrims could venerate their relics in the relative safety of the city.

Over the next few centuries, therefore, the catacombs would be completely emptied of Saints’ relics, such that by the 10th century, we have a graffito at the entrance of one of them which says, “Turn around, there’s nothing to see here”, meaning that all of the martyrs had been taken away to the churches. When the catacombs were excavated in modern times, only one grave which certainly belongs to a martyr was found still undisturbed. (To be precise, it was the grave of two martyrs, Ss Calocerus and Parthenius, in the catacomb of St Callixtus on the Appian Way.)

Pope Theodore built a chapel for Saints Primus and Felician at the church of St Stephen on the Caelian hill, generally known as “Santo Stefano Rotondo – round St Stephen’s”, the only round church in Rome. Although the entire building has been extensively rebuilt and redecorated since its original construction, a fair portion of the apsidal mosaic of this chapel remains in good condition. At the bottom is a poetic inscription in Latin:

Aspicis auratum caelesti culmine tectum,
Astriferumque micans praeclaro lumine vultum.

You look upon a gilded roof with its height in heaven, and a star-bearing face that shines with brilliant light.

(Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.)

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