Published in the 30 January 2008 edition of Christian Renewal magazine.
For over two millennia, Christians have been travelling to Rome. In the first century, no less than the Apostle Paul expressed a passion to visit the church there “in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.” While Roman pilgrimages have been almost universally connected with the Roman Catholic Church, a visit to Rome would be of great benefit to even the most committed Protestant.
Of all the great cities in the world, Rome exudes history perhaps more than any other. Volumes have been written about the things to see and do there – from the grand and beautiful, such as the Villa Borghese and the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, to the dark and sombre, like the Carcer Mamertinus, the dank prison cell where Paul is supposed to have written Philippians. Here we will contrast just two of Rome’s many magnificent sights.
The catacombs of Domitilla, St. Sebastian, and St. Callixtus, three of the five catacombs that are open to the public, are within walking distance of each other just off the Via Appia Antica, an ancient Roman road that runs south from the city center. The Roman Christians of the first few centuries A.D. dug the catacombs and used them as subterranean graveyards, expanding them downward as the upper passages filled. Thousands of small burial niches, each averaging only about 20 inches high and 135 inches long, were carved one-over-another along the miles of passages of soft rock. A body was placed in each one and sealed inside with a plaster slab, usually inscribed with only the deceased’s name and a small Christian symbol, such as a fish or dove.
A handful of the graves are more elaborate; some of the wealthier families used more than the usual amount of space, constructed ornate sarcophagi, and commissioned paintings to adorn them. But these few tombs stand out as the exception; indeed, one of the most striking things about the catacombs is their uniformity and simplicity. In the ancient world, an elaborate tomb was a sign of wealth and power. But in the catacombs, the graves of the mean and the significant are almost always identical.
From the sacking of Rome to the 10th century, and then again after they were rediscovered in the 16th century, the catacombs were pillaged. Treasure-seekers smashed open the vast majority of the graves, expecting to find valuables buried with the bodies. However, in contrast to most ancient religions, which taught that certain possessions should be buried with the deceased in order to demonstrate their greatness and equip them for the afterlife (for example, see the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs), the early Christians knew that the dead leave the world just as they entered it – naked. Consequently, with the exception of those who sold bones as relics in the era of the Reformation, the treasure-seekers found almost nothing of value.
Even the relatively few paintings that were done in the catacombs have a remarkably different focus. Whereas much graveyard art from the ancient (and modern) world portrayed the deceased and extolled his virtues, the paintings in the catacombs are almost universally of Christological (for example, the Good Shepherd or Jesus’ miracles) or eschatological (the resurrection and last judgment) images – I do not recall a single one that portrayed the dead.
Visitors to the catacombs can barely help but notice how they reflect the beliefs of the early church. The graves’ simplicity and imagery almost force one to walk slowly and quietly and speak in a whisper. One might even feel an unexpected closeness to these brothers and sisters, who are separated from the visitor only by time. After all, the strange sense of hope and subdued joy that the catacombs seem to emit remind those who share their faith that we will one day be privileged to meet those who carved these tombs of rock.
Across Rome’s city center from the catacombs, in its northwest corner, lies la Città del Vaticano, the Vatican City. This city-within-a-city is the remains of what was once one of the most extensive and powerful kingdoms in Europe, in which the pope exercised political control over a territory covering most of present-day Italy and extending far northward. Today his direct political power extends only to this mini-state.
St. Peter’s Basilica dominates the Vatican skyline, but the symbols of the pope’s temporal power extend well beyond this famous church. Within its high walls, the Vatican boasts one of the world’s greatest libraries, the best art collection in history, and opulent palaces and churches, including the Sistine Chapel. The papacy makes full use of its holdings from a cash-flow standpoint as well, collecting admission fees from thousands of visitors per day. Between its elaborate buildings, the priceless and irreplaceable treasures they contain, and the mind-boggling amount of cash in its independent bank, the Vatican exudes power and wealth, the two great measures of worldly greatness.
The Vatican’s symbols of greatness were ostensibly built to prove the greatness of God to all the world, but they stand in such striking contrast to the catacombs. Whereas the catacombs are simple, humble, uniform, and focused on future glory, the Vatican is immense, grandiose, inimitable, and focused on proving the glory of God in a temporal sense, here and now through the Church of Rome. No visitor to Rome can help but notice the vast differences between the two sights, but such an observer must guard against externalising this great contrast – that is, understanding them as caused simply by the errant beliefs or extravagant tastes of the Roman Catholic Church and being of little concern elsewhere.
Being Protestant or Reformed or whatever else makes us no less vulnerable to losing sight of the humility and promise of future glory that are still displayed so movingly in the catacombs, even after two millennia of pillaging and decay. Nor does it make us less likely to pursue those things that seem so important here and now, yet are nowhere to be found when we go naked to our graves. The Scriptures teach that God’s glory is displayed not in temporary, worldly greatness, but in weakness and hope in the future promises of God:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12.9-10, ESV. See also 2 Kings 18.17-19.37; Psalm 20; Zech. 4.6; 1 Cor. 1.17-2.9, 13.10, 15.42-44; 2 Cor. 4.1-11, 11.30; Phil. 4.11-13).
Between the beautiful, the base, the grand, and the gritty, there is plenty to see and do in Rome, and any Christian who pays attention will learn much in this great city.