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Catechism by the Catacombs

by Philip M. Hannan


In this article from 1943 Philip Hannan calls attention to the catechetical value of the Catacombs, especially when it comes to teaching youth and converts, or defending the Faith to non-Catholics.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


449 – 454

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, February 1943

It was one of those paralyzing days in full spring when the air was as thick as porridge with mental inertia. We were supposed to be explaining the Mass. In desperation I began a description of the earliest picture of the celebration of the Mass (the famous Fractio Panis, or Breaking of Bread, in the Catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome) by remarking on the importance of the lady's hairdress in determining the date of the picture. The effect was electrical. The girls became as attentive as old ladies at a fashion show; the boys became slightly incredulous.

The ancient symbols and illustrations in the Catacombs were designed for the instruction of the faithful. Why not utilize them today for the instruction of children and converts?

For the instruction of children in religion take, for instance, an explanation of the above-mentioned fresco as an introduction to the Mass. The picture shows the celebration of the Mass with a number of people seated around a semicircular table, the priest occupying the central place and in the act of consecration. On the table are plates of fish and bread, the loaves of bread marked with a cross and usually placed on a fish. Two important points must be established: the date of the picture, proving that it is a representation of a religious service in the first centuries of Christianity; and secondly, proof that in this service, now called the Mass, Christ is really present in the consecrated species. The establishing of the date of the picture provides a good dash of human interest to the sacred scene. The dating of the painting is fixed, not only by the nature of the decorative stucco about the fresco, but especially by the type of hairdress worn by the important lady in the center of the group. European archeologists and historians are as familiar with the styles and customs of the ancients as we are with those of the stars in Hollywood; they knew that this particular type of hairdress was peculiar to the first century. What socially prominent lady, Roman or American, would wear or would have herself painted wearing an outmoded hairdress? Hence, we know that the picture is of the first, or at the latest, the beginning of the second century.

Incontestable proof of the faith of the early Christians in the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is afforded by the symbol of the fish with the bread. The fish was a symbol of Christ's real presence because of an acrostic; the first letter of each word of the inscription of the Cross — Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour — form the Greek word for fish (i-ch-th-u-s). Thus, the fish under or near the bread signifies the belief of the Christians that the bread becomes the Body of Christ by the words of consecration in the Mass. Such symbolism not only engraves the doctrine of the Church on the plastic minds of children, but it is also deeply inspirational. It is one thing to explain Holy Communion to children; it is another to make them weekly or daily communicants.

The material found in the Catacombs is sufficient to provide an enormous scope of instruction. In fact, there is some evidence in the Catacombs for almost every major doctrine of the Church. The chapel containing the fresco of the Fractio Panis which we have been discussing also contains pictures illustrating three of the Sacraments; some scholars find symbols of five Sacraments in this chapel, but who will make the scholars unanimous? The Sacraments represented are Baptism, Holy Eucharist, and Penance.

Of course, the representation of the Sacraments is through the medium of symbols. Baptism is represented by Noah cruising serenely in his ark — for the ark was the sole instrument of salvation just as Baptism is. The Holy Eucharist is depicted in the picture described above. The Sacrament of Penance is represented by a picture of the paralytic miraculously cured by Christ, who thus vindicated His claims to divine power: "Which is easier, to say to this man, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee,' or to say, 'Arise and walk?' But that you may know that the Son of Man has power to forgive sins, I say to thee: 'Arise and walk.'"

That there is no complete series of illustrations of Christian doctrine in the Catacombs, is due mainly to the thorough vandalism of the "Christian" Lombards who wrecked them in search of relics. However, such a skeletal exposition of how the material in the Catacombs can be used to illustrate the sacramental system and other doctrines of the Church does not afford any idea of the interesting sidelights that prove so stimulating to classwork. Interest soars in the classroom the minute one tells of the maneuvering and scheming of the Christians to have their dead buried near a revered Saint or Martyr, not even a wall or painting being spared in their zeal to accomplish their purpose. Furthermore, children will listen for hours to a description of the system of symbolism used by the Christians to protect their doctrine against detection during the impious raids of the pagans.

Even a description of the physical make-up of the Catacombs proves interesting and develops a general aura of devotion, for the physical factors that made possible the digging of the Catacombs certainly betoken the finger of God. No one knows the exact extent of the Catacombs in and around Rome, but almost all authorities agree that they are not less than 300 miles. Certainly such extensive excavation would not be possible in ordinary clay, subject to cave-ins. What rendered the construction of the Catacombs possible was the presence of a semi-rock substance, called tufa, in and around Rome. Tufa is easy to excavate, and when excavated dries and hardens. The walls of the Catacombs hardened sufficiently to prevent a cave-in; of course, support at an intersection of the corridors was advisable. These tufa formations enabled the Christians to construct different levels of corridors, which resemble a huge underground apartment house. Just describe the Catacombs briefly to children, and then try to get out of the classroom without being forced to tell more about them!

The Catacombs also afford an exceptionally potent arsenal in religious discussions with non-Catholics, whether the facts are used in instructions for converts or for an old-fashioned sledgehammer attack on bigotry. The objective evidence in the Catacombs seems destined by God for that class of people to whom St. John wrote, pleading that his doctrine was "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled." The extremely skeptical type that demands its Creed documented by a laboratory display of evidence cannot fail to be impressed by the inscriptions, frescoes, and tombstones in the Catacombs.

Since the writer has had some experience with the Catholic Evidence Guild in a number of cities, he can vouch for the splendid apologetic value of the evidence in the Catacombs on the controversial doctrines of the Church — purgatory, the authority of the Pope, the immortality of the soul. This evidence is not the type that seeps into the mind of a skeptic so gradually that it leaves him saturated but unchanged. No, this evidence usually hits him with the impact recently exercised on an ardent French Catholic by the sight of a swastika in the Catacombs; he wanted to know when and how the Nazis had taken over the Church. Of course, the swastika, a disguised cross for the early Christians, was used in the Church long before Hitler appeared.

The doctrine of purgatory is perhaps the most unacceptable (to err by understatement) to non-Catholic minds. After one has done away with the rubbish that has accumulated around the word itself — that the word "purgatory" was not used until the sixth century, etc. — the stage is set for proving the belief of the early Christians in the place later named "purgatory." The clearest proof of this belief of the early Christians is found in the Catacombs. There is an abundance of inscriptions on the tombs requesting prayers for the deceased, and often the inscription is a prayer: "May he soon rest in peace!" Perhaps the best-known request for prayers for a deceased person is the pun in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla; an inscription asks the Christians about to celebrate the agape (a Christian gathering before the celebration of Mass, and sometimes erroneously used to designate the Mass) to pray for "Agape" who was buried in the Catacombs. Why pray for anyone who is not in a position to be helped? Uttered in behalf of a soul in heaven or in hell, prayer is equally useless; if prayer is to be efficacious, the soul must be in a place which we call purgatory, where it can be helped if prayer is reasonable. A parole is not asked for a man who is not in jail or who has been executed; freedom is asked only for a man who presently does not have it — who is in jail. Even the most bigoted person must admit (even if for other reasons he challenges the doctrine) that the early Christians expressed their belief in a place later called purgatory by praying for their deceased.

The authority of the Pope is another famous controverted doctrine that is indicated in the Catacombs. Of course, the evidence is pictorial. There is a very well-executed and well-preserved carving on a sarcophagus from the Catacombs of St. Lawrence, showing the consigning of the sheep to St. Peter: "Feed My lambs . . . Feed My sheep." The other Apostles are present in the scene, but St. Peter is certainly the shepherd. Likewise, there are representations of Christ giving to St. Peter the keys and entrusting the Law to him — and it is always entrusted to him personally. Just as many a great truth is illustrated by a homely incident, the great doctrine of infallibility is clearly shown in a curious detail. An old sarcophagus in Arles, France, shows St. Peter enthroned and teaching the Law to a group of learned men, while a little old man, simply bent with an overflow of zeal and respect, kneels to kiss the toe of the Apostle. In all these scenes it is the person, St. Peter, who is the object of Christ's attention and the recipient of His power. There is absolutely nothing to indicate any support for the old sophistry that Christ commended only the profession of faith made by St. Peter. To establish the belief of the early Christians that the successor of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome, inherited his spiritual powers, we need only observe that their inscriptions testify to the belief that the Pope had supreme authority over all Christians.

An interesting illustration of the belief of the early Christians (and later Christians, too) that the successor of St. Peter inherited his power as head of the Church was the procession in the Basilica of St. Peter's on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The Chair of St. Peter, now preserved in the great reliquary back of the main altar of St. Peter's in Rome, is the chair-throne which ancient tradition proclaims as the throne used by St. Peter while in Rome; there is another Chair of St. Peter of Antioch, presumably used by the Head of the Apostles in that city. It was the custom of the Christians to enthrone the successor of St. Peter in the Chair of St. Peter. Also, on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter of Rome, the reigning Pope was carried in the Chair through the Basilica of St. Peter and enthroned at the altar. Regardless of whether the ancient relic is genuine, the conviction of the people about the authority of the Pope as successor of St. Peter was certainly genuine. Also, in the famous Crypt of the Popes in the Cemetery of St. Callixtus we have evidence that the successive Pontiffs were buried in the same chapel as a sign of their supreme and equal authority. Of course, these memorials add nothing to the scriptural and logical proofs of the authority and infallibility of the Holy Father, but they illustrate the doctrine and illuminate it, just as, while a light doesn't alter a book, it certainly makes it readable.

A beautifully illustrated Christian doctrine is that of the immortality of the soul. To materialists who will not believe until they have seen the after-life all we can say is that we hope their status will come as a pleasant surprise; to those who are ready to accept the beliefs of the early Christians, there is much in the Catacombs about the eternity of paradise. Paradise is pictured as a beautiful, if crowded, garden inhabited by Christ, the Pastor, and His sheep together with an abundance of strange birds, including the peacock and phoenix. The peacock and the phoenix are the symbols of immortality — the peacock because of its great longevity and the phoenix for its even greater, though fabled, longevity. The phoenix, according to Egyptian mythology (which is our only source of knowledge for this bird), lives five hundred years, is then consumed by fire, and rises from its ashes to live for another five hundred years. Certainly an apt symbolism for the doctrine proclaimed by Christ: "He that hateth his life in this world keepeth it unto life eternal in the next."

The few examples which we have given of the apologetic value of the Catacombs do not convey an adequate appreciation of their catechetical worth, for there is a charm and devotion attached to the subject that defies analysis. Simply mention the Catacombs in class and immediately a reverent enchantment seems to brood in the air. These venerable memorials of the first years of Christianity, these links with the Apostolic age, bring a holy sense of communion with the past. Every detail about the Catacombs seems charged with a mission from Divine Providence, and every aspect seems to create a stronger bond of union with our faith. Just as, regardless of his personal beliefs, no reverent visitor can enter a Catholic church without being affected in some way by the warmth of the Divine Presence there, no one, child or adult, can come into contact with the Catacombs without a perceptible growth in devotion to Christ and His Church, for these places have been hallowed by the presence of Christ's nobility for centuries.

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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