Wednesday, July 03, 2019 - Updated: 12:42 pm
QUESTION: I have always thought that the catacombs were places where Christians hid from the Romans and where they celebrated Mass. My children, however, have been taught that the catacombs were not Christian burial places. What’s the truth?
ANSWER: The word catacomb itself has an interesting history. It seems that one of the most famous ancient cemeteries was that of Calistus situated in a low-lying area along the Appian Way. The Greek words “kata kumbas” (near the low place) were used to designate that cemetery. In time, those words came to describe a large number of such burial places.
Roman law forbade burial in populated areas and, therefore, cemeteries were established outside the city walls near main roads. Wealthy Roman families built mausoleums where the ashes of the dead were placed and where memorial services were held. The poor were generally buried in simple graves in remote sections of these same cemeteries.
Early Christians (like the Jews) were opposed to cremation. Because of this and because most of them were not wealthy, they were often buried in the earth in more remote sections of public (pagan) cemeteries. Some Christians, however, were also buried in the mausoleums because of their wealth or because they were servants or slaves of those who were.
With the spread of Christianity, prominent families also accepted the faith. Their family burial places were then shared with other Christians. Population growth and reluctance to build too far from the city walls made cemetery space scarce as time went on. Mausoleums could no longer accommodate new burials and space at ground level became inadequate.
Caves were then dug out under existing cemeteries to provide additional space. The soil permitted this because it consisted of a soft clay that when dry becomes as hard as stone. Eventually, Christians connected these underground burial sites by means of tunnels along which bodies were also buried.
Graves approximately 2 feet high and 4 to 5 feet in length were dug into the tunnel walls one on top of the other. Individual graves were closed with slabs of marble, brickwork or tiles, which often bore the name, age and date of death. Beginning in the third century, these burial places were given to Christian communities, and individuals were assigned to care for them.
There is little or no evidence that the catacombs were utilized as places of refuge for Christians. And it was only beginning in the fourth century (when Christianity became a “legal” religion) that memorial services and the Eucharist were routinely offered there. The increased use of the catacombs contributed to the growth of artistic embellishment there.
The sharp decrease in population during the barbarian invasions contributed to decreased use of all burial places (including the catacombs). Their disappearance from sight was fortunate because, while above-ground burial vaults were destroyed by time and invasions, the catacombs remained relatively undisturbed until their rediscovery during the Renaissance. Although pillaged for works of art during that period, they remain to this day a source of rich Christian symbolism. Using ancient calendars, martyrologies, liturgical texts and patristic writings we know surprisingly much about the catacombs and those who were buried there.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.