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Christian Churches

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


In this article, the Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey examines the various places of Christian worship during the period of persecutions, including the Catacombs.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, November 1926

I. Period Of The Persecutions

The supreme liturgical function of the Catholic Church is the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of the Son of God in the bloodless oblation of the Mass. This sacrifice was first offered by our Lord Himself "in the night wherein He was betrayed." Thus it comes about that the Upper Room of that thrice-blessed house in which this wondrous scene was enacted, was also the first church of the New Law. We know for certain that, when the Apostles in their turn repeated what they had seen the Master do, they did not depart from the simple ritual with which He accompanied the stupendous Actio of the first Mass. The plain, unadorned record of the Gospels, together with the details added by St. Paul, is an adequate description of the Apostolic Liturgy.

If it be inconceivable that the Apostles should have altered anything in the ceremonial of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, can we believe that they did not likewise hold in especial reverence the room where it was first enacted? Surely, they were as true to human instinct as we should have been. Now, we are all conscious of an impulse to preserve intact and unaltered those places, or rooms, where something out of the common has taken place. We may take it for granted that, in all subsequent celebrations of the Eucharist, the Apostles would arrange the room on the lines of that Upper Room, which held so many precious memories for them.

The first believers were assiduous in their visits to the temple. They freely joined in the songs and prayers of the multitude, which never failed to gather there, the Apostles themselves giving the example. So far there was no need of meeting-places of their own, the distinction between the worship of the temple and the practices of the first disciples being as yet not finally established. But there was one rite — and that the essential one of the New Faith, the one which definitely marked off the Church from the Synagogue — which could not be accomplished under the porticoes of the temple — that is, the Eucharistic repast or the "breaking of the bread," as it is called in the Acts. This essential act of the new religion was performed in the privacy of the houses of the faithful. They would meet, now in one house and now in another, according to the number of those who attended and the capacity of different dwellings to accommodate them. As we have said above, at these assemblies the external setting would be reminiscent of that of the room, the image of which must have been deeply engraven upon the memories of so many among them.

There were, therefore, as many churches as there were houses of the faithful; but there was nothing permanent in these domestic sanctuaries. Each house or domestic church, however, became of necessity a rallying point for the faithful, so that their attention would no longer be exclusively focused upon the Temple. These meeting-places would likewise draw the hatred and the hostility of the Jews. The Acts relate how "Saul made havoc of the church, entering in from house to house, and dragging away men and women, committed them to prison." (Acts, viii. 3). At Jerusalem these domestic churches must have been fairly well-known, but at Damascus they were more hidden, for, though Saul knew of the existence of a Christian body there, he was less certain of his ability to lay his hands upon them: "if he found any men and women of this way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem" (Acts, ix. 2).

When the Apostles, and chief among them St. Paul, turned to the Jews of the Dispersion and finally to the Gentiles, they organized local and domestic churches in all the cities of the Empire. Thus, there was one at Troas, a spacious room on the third floor of a house, "in which there was a great number of lamps" — obviously not for the sole purpose of illumination, but likewise for the sake of ornament and symbolic meaning. At Rome there was a church, or place of assembly, in the house of two wealthy merchants, Aquila and Prisca. The habit of meeting in the houses of some wealthy member of the church lasted during the whole period of the Church's struggle with Roman paganism — that is, during the first two or three centuries. Often not a room merely, or a hall, would be set apart for religious purposes; at times the owner of a vast building would give up his house permanently, and turn it into a church. We know that such was the origin of most of, if not all, the great basilicas of Rome.

There exists a curious and bewildering book, called Recognitiones Clementinae, dating back perhaps to the latter half of the second century. We read there that, whilst St. Peter stayed at Antioch, more than ten thousand people were baptized within the brief space of seven days. A certain Theophilus, the chief citizen of Antioch, was among the converts. He turned the principal hall of his house into a church or meeting-place, and Peter set up there his pontifical chair, while great crowds flocked together to listen to his teaching: domus suae ingentem basilicam ecclesiae nomine consecraret, in qua Petro Apostolo constituta, est ab omni populo cathedra, et omnis multitudo quotidie ad audiendum verbum conveniens (cfr. Leclercq, Dict. d'archeol. et de Liturg., IV, col. 2285).

A far more precious piece of information, because strictly authentic, is found in the Acts of the Martyrdom of St. Justin. The judicial inquiry bears witness both to the number of those who, in the early years of the second century, had embraced Christianity, and to the multiplicity of churches and oratories. When the prefect inquired about the meeting-places of the Christians, Justin refused at first to give a precise answer: "Dost thou imagine," he asked, "that we all meet in one and the same place? Not in the least, since the God of the Christians is not confined to one place, but, while invisible, fills heaven and earth, and everywhere is adored by the faithful and His glory lauded" (quoniam Christianorum Deus loco non circumscribitur, sed, cum invisibilis sit, coelum et terram implet, atque ubique a fidelibus adoratur et ejus gloria collaudatur). Pressed by the prefect to tell where they met and where he himself gathered his disciples, Justin replied: "Until now I have lived near the house of a certain Martin, close to a bathing establishment bearing the surname of Timiothinum." These baths appear to have belonged to Timothy, the son of Pudens. "I have now twice come to Rome, but I know of no other place except the one I have mentioned. If anyone came to visit me, I expounded the true doctrine to him."

In the Acts of St. Cecilia we read that the Saint, stricken to death, pleaded for a truce of three days, so as to give her time to make over her house to the Church in order that her former home might become an oratory (Triduanas a Domino poposci inducias, ut domum meam ecclesiam consecrarem). Unfortunately, scholars doubt the absolute genuineness of these Acts, but surely we may be permitted to attach no small value to the age-long tradition of Rome, which entertains no doubt as to the authenticity of the wonderful story.

Not only in the houses of the wealthy and in the aristocratic quarters of the city, did the Christians establish their meeting-places. On the left bank of the Tiber there stood a hospital for old soldiers (taberna meritoria). On or near that spot a fountain of oil suddenly gushed up from the ground and flowed for a whole day, the miraculous oil streaming down into the Tiber. This event took place a short time before the day on which our Lord was born. Oil is an appropriate emblem of the Messias, the Anointed One, whose name is sweet and dear to His followers, even more than the most fragrant perfume (oleum effusum nomen tuum). The miraculous fountain of oil was but yet another of those prodigies by which even the pagan world was prepared for the advent of a Saviour.

Now, the spot where the oil welled up from the earth became dear to the first Roman Christians. The district was rather low and disreputable, but the faithful acquired the site, though not without much litigation. Lampridius tells us that the Emperor Alexander had himself to adjudicate between the Christians and the innkeepers (popinarii) of the district, or possibly only the caterers who ran a canteen there for the benefit of the veterans. The historian has preserved for us the verdict of one who was perhaps the best of pagan Emperors. This Caesar was of opinion that it was better that God should be worshipped under whatever form rather than the holy spot should be given up to riotousness (melius esse ut quomodocumque illic Deus colatur quam popinariis dedatur). St. Calixtus erected here the first public place of Christian worship in Rome, and so it comes about that Sta. Maria in Trastevere is, in many ways, one of the most venerable and interesting among the many sanctuaries of the Eternal City.

Even more interesting is the Church of San Clemente. St. Clement was baptized by St. Peter, and is called by St. Paul a "fellow-laborer," one of those "whose names are written in the book of life" (Philip., iv. 3). Clement erected an oratory in his house, which in the fourth century was replaced by a larger edifice. St. Jerome speaks of this sanctuary as being long established, even in those days (Nominis ejus memoriam usque hodie Romae extructa ecclesia custodit).

II. The First Christian Places Of Worship

Many people imagine — and the idea has had currency during many years even among the learned — that, during the three centuries, which preceded the peace of Constantine, the Church was reduced to worship invariably in secret and under precarious conditions. Our imagination has been so impressed with pictures of crowds of believers huddled together in the narrow corridors of the Catacombs, that we are only too ready to think that the Church had been driven wholly underground by successive edicts of persecution. It is true there were periods when the only means of safety lay in flight — that is, in seeking shelter among the dead. However, there were no laws of expropriation aimed at the faithful such as were enacted, for example, in England during the reign of Elizabeth; the only persecution which sought to rob the faithful, not only of their faith, but likewise of their temporal possessions, was the awful persecution of Diocletian. History tells us that it was a common occurrence for pagans to be present at part, at least, of the religious meetings of the Christians. Even the power and authority of the Popes made itself felt in public life, so that St. Cyprian was able to make the amazing statement that the imperial authority became jealous of the influence wielded by the Bishop of Rome. When St. Cornelius was elected to the See of Peter, Decius experienced greater uneasiness than if he had learned that a competitor for the imperial dignity was in the field: Cum multo patientins audiret levari adversum se aemulum principem, quam constitui Romae Dei sacerdotem (St. Cyprian, Ep. ad Antonian.).

The persecution of which the Church was the object during a period of some two and a half centuries, was never universal and simultaneous in the strict sense of the word, except possibly during the fierce onslaught of Diocletian. As a rule, the persecution would break out spasmodically, striking now this local church, now that; but between bouts of violence there were periods of comparative peace and security, when the Faith could strike its roots deep down in the soil of Roman society. Even at the last, when Diocletian sought to stifle the Church in the blood of her children and ordered the destruction of their churches, some parts of the Empire escaped his fury, for Eusebius tells us that Constantius Chlorus, who ruled over Gaul, Britain and Spain, protected the followers of Christ, would not allow them to be denounced to the magistrates, and saw to the safety of their sacred buildings (Hist. eccl., VIII, 13). Lactantius, however, declares that he spared the faithful, but permitted the demolition of the churches.

Finally, not to prolong our researches, there is one witness which leaves no doubt whatever that, long before the peace, the churches and oratories of the Christians were both numerous and perfectly well known to the authorities. There are decrees of Maximin and Galerius, which alternately ordain the destruction of Christian sanctuaries or their confiscation, and again restore them to their lawful owners. Even their reconstruction is commanded, when they had been destroyed, to enable the victims of their fury to pray for the safety of the Emperors. Eusebius gives the text, which goes so far as to prescribe that "the Christians who have left the religion of their fathers, should again return to a good purpose and resolution." The egregious document ends by permitting that "there may be Christians again, and that they may restore their houses in which they were accustomed to assemble, so that nothing be done by them contrary to their profession" (op. cit., VIII, 17).

We know very little about the external appearance and inward appointments of these first Christian places of worship. Outwardly, they cannot have differed much, if at all, from the ordinary Roman dwellings. Internally, there were even then those dispositions, which are demanded by the very nature of Christian worship. The most obvious division of the building was that of the sanctuary (or chancel) for altar and priests and the nave (or main space of the hall in which the faithful were accommodated, the sexes being rigorously separated from each other).

The houses of the well-to-do of that period did not show the endless variety which is observable in modern dwellings of the same class. They all conformed to a common type. Around a large central hall, in which the family gathered and where guests could be entertained, there were grouped the various domestic rooms and offices. It was in the great central hall that the meetings of the faithful took place, the adjoining rooms being used for those other purposes which the corporate life of the Church implied, such as the care bestowed upon the sick and the poor, alms-giving playing a great part in the religious life of the faithful. The Roman dwelling was the ideal Christian "church." Its largest hall (the atrium and tablinium) was used for liturgical purposes; the triclinium would accommodate the guests of the agape, which was a feature of the gathering; and from the various offices distribution could be made to the poor by the deacons of the church. The rooms adjoining the central hall were certainly used as storerooms. It is hardly conceivable that the deacons, who had charge of the temporalities, would live, so to speak, from hand to mouth, and only buy provisions just sufficient for each meeting of the faithful. That the various churches had their treasury and storerooms closely connected with the place of worship, is readily gathered from what we read in the Acts of St. Lawrence. When that holy deacon felt that persecution was impending, he promptly disposed of the possessions of the Roman Church, by distributing them among the poor. Thus, when the governor of the city, who was at least as eager to confiscate material goods as to compel the Christians to worship idols, demanded of Lawrence the surrender of the treasures of the church, the holy deacon led him to the rooms adjoining the church where he ministered, and, pointing to the crowd of the poor and lame and diseased whom he collected there, he declared these to be the treasure of the Church: Postulat sibi ab immaculato sacrarii praesule opes ecclesiasticas...inferri. Cui Levita castissimus, ubi eas repositas haberet, ostendens, numerosissimos sanctorum pauperum obtulit greges, in quorum victu et vestitu inamissibiles condiderat facilitates (St. Leo, Sermo in S. Laurent.)

If we bear all this in mind, we shall readily understand the astonishment of Eusebius when he beheld the vast structures, which, in the days of peace, gradually replaced the humbler sanctuaries of former ages. Thus also we understand the oft-recurring expression, domus ecclesiae — that is, the house where the assembly of the faithful met, not only for religious purposes, but for the manifold activities connected with a large body of people.

One last remark must be added with regard to worship in the Catacombs. When the virulence of pagan persecution rendered assemblies in their churches impossible, the Christians of Rome sought shelter underground in the burial places of the dead. Divine Providence had made provision for the safety of the Church through the very laws of the State, which sought to encompass its destruction. In common with all nations, the Romans had the utmost reverence for the burial places of the dead. The mere fact of burying a body in a given spot rendered that place sacred: religiosum locum unusquisque sua voluntate facit, dum mortuum infert in locum suum (Digest., I. 8, 6, ยง4). The ground was thus withdrawn from the ordinary law, and not subject to either usucapio or prescription. The law protected the last resting-place, not only of its owner, but that also of those whom he allowed to be buried alongside of him. So the early Christians felt fairly safe, when they met in the cemeteries, which we know as the Catacombs. Here there are not only long, narrow corridors, lined with graves rising in tiers, but broad, open spaces, which served as churches. Anyone who wishes to have a description of one of these subterranean churches need but turn to the ever-delightful pages of Cardinal Wiseman's "Fabiola." One brief extract may be permitted us, describing such a church discovered in the cemetery of St. Agnes. It was divided into two by a corridor.

"Each of the two divisions was double, that is, consisted of two large chambers, slightly separated by half-columns... But the most remarkable feature of this basilica is a further prolongation of the structure, so as to give it a chancel, or presbytery. This is about the size of half of each other division, from which it is separated by two columns against the wall, as well as by its lesser height, after the manner of modern chancels... At the end of the chancel, against the middle of the wall, is a chair with the back and arms cut out of the solid stone, and from each side proceeds a stone bench, which thus occupies the end and two sides of the chancel. As the table of the arched tomb behind the chair is higher than the back of the throne, and as this is immovable, it is clear that the Divine Mysteries could not have been celebrated upon it. A portable altar must, therefore, have been placed before the throne, in an isolated position in the middle of the sanctuary; and this, tradition tells us, was the wooden altar of St. Peter" ("Fabiola," chapter XVI).

This disposition of the underground church must have been copied from the arrangements made in the domus ecclesiae above ground, and it was subsequently adhered to when, at the Peace of Constantine, basilicas were erected all over Italy and the Roman Empire.

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