For Christians, a visit to the Holy Catacombs of San Callisto transforms into a pilgrimage as soon as you descend the first step. It takes but seconds for the spiritual force of the Holy Catacombs to envelop you and make you understand that this is no mere tourist destination, but rather a place from which few emerge the same as they entered, and some attest that the changes are spiritual as well as physical.
Carved into the volcanic rock, are an inordinate number of tiny tombs barely large enough to accommodate an infant.
If you go there unprepared for any of this, as I was, the effects of San Callisto on your being will be as evident as they will be uplifting and surprising . Truth be told, unless you have been there before or you have spoken with those who have, I am not sure that it’s easy to be prepared for the overwhelming experience that awaits you. Shiny and slick travel brochures mention nothing of this and in fact most treat the Holy Catacombs as just something to do when touring the Via Appia Antica.
The catacombs, however, will draw you in and will let you know that maybe just maybe, perhaps your entire journey to Rome was made just so that you could descend into this Holy place and walk the same hallowed ground walked by so many martyrs and devout Christians and to say a prayer in the place where so many of them were laid to rest. Along with the seven Martyred Popes entombed at San Callisto, Martyred Deacons and of course the martyred Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians and church music, the tombs of unknown numbers of the faithful line the walls and many more are buried beneath the floors. My God, how can anyone emerge from there unaffected?
“Most of what we know about him has come down to us from his critics, including an anti-Pope of the day. He was on more than one occasion accused of heresy for such actions as permitting a return to Communion for sinners who had repented and done penance, or for proclaiming that differences in economic class were no barrier to marriage. This last put him in conflict with Roman civil law, but he stated that in matters concerning the Church and the sacraments, Church law trumped civil law. In both cases he taught what the Church has taught for centuries, including today, and though a whole host of schismatics wrote against him, his crime seems to have been to practice orthodox Christianity.” Mart. For additional information please vist the source of this quote saints.sqpn.com
But as you continue on your all too short pilgrimage through the public areas of the catacombs there is another site also not mentioned in any of the travel brochures that strikes you and really brings to life – so real you can touch it and see it – the nature of the struggle which will only end with the end of days. There, carved into the volcanic rock, are an inordinate number of tiny tombs barely large enough to accommodate an infant. And that’s just what they are, the infants’ tombs of San Callisto.
In ancient Rome, in lieu of abortion, infanticide was practiced liberally. In Rome the most common form of infanticide was just simple abandonment. As barbaric as that is in other parts of the ancient pagan world the preferred form of infanticide took on more sinister and vicious forms.
The Carthaginians, killed their infants in sacrifices to their gods . Plutarch tell us that those Carthaginians who had no children to offer in sacrifice would go out and buy the children of the poor to offer to the gods, “and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile their mothers stood by without a tear or a moan” Moralia2.17
The tsunami of infant blood that washed over humanity since ancient times was staved off by Christianity.
The infant’s tombs of at the Holy Catacombs of San Callisto are real world evidence of how this monumental struggle for the very future of humanity was fought and won. It’s also living proof that the swords and spears and flames, of the pagans were feeble and meaningless in the face of the mighty weapons wielded by Christians. For you see, this battle was won with love and faith.
The infant’s tombs at San Callisto were the final resting place of many of the unfortunate abandoned infants of ancient Rome. Collected by Christians, abandoned infants were lovingly cared for and nursed back to health and baptized as Christians. Those that could not be saved were given a Christian burial in the catacombs. That the number of infant tombs isn’t exponentially higher is a testament to the lives saved by the early Christians.
Is it even possible to estimate the benefit to humanity accomplished by these early Christians? Of course not, like all of God’s acts we can, if lucky, just wonder with humble appreciation.
To be continued
In Part 2
1) How infanticide contributed to the fall ancient civilizations
2) Parallels between ancient pagan societies and current society
3) Repeating history
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