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THE CATACOMBS OF ROME.
“AMONG the cultivated grounds not far from the city of Rome,” says the Christian poet Prudentius, “lies a deep crypt, with dark recesses. A descending path, with winding steps, leads through the dim turnings, and the daylight, entering by the mouth of the cavern, somewhat illumes the first part of the way. But the darkness grows deeper as we advance, till we meet with openings, cut in the roof of the passages, admitting light from above. On all sides spreads the densely-woven labyrinth of paths, branching into caverned chapels and sepulchral halls; and throughout the subterranean maze, through frequent openings, penetrates the light.”
This description of the Catacombs in the fourth century is equally applicable to their general appearance in the nineteenth. Their main features are unchanged, although time and decay have greatly impaired their structure and defaced their beauty These Christian cemeteries are situated chiefly near the great roads leading from the city, and, for the most part, within a circle of three miles from the walls. From this circumstance they have been compared to the "encampment of a Christian host besieging Pagan Rome, and driving inward its mines and trenches with an assurance of final victory.” The openings of the Catacombs are scattered over the Campagna, whose mournful desolation surrounds the city; often among the mouldering mausolea that rise, like stranded wrecks, above the rolling sea of verdure of the tomb-abounding plain. On every side are tombs-tombs above and tombs below—the graves of contending races, the sepulchres of vanished generations : “Piena di sepoltura è la Cam
How marvellous that beneath the remains of a proud pagan civilization, exist the early monuments of that power before which the myths of paganism faded away as the spectres of darkness before the rising sun, and by which the religions and institutions of Rome were entirely changed. Beneath the ruined palaces and temples, the crumbling tombs and dismantled villas, of the august mistress of the world, we find the most interesting relics of early Christianity on the face of the earth. In traversing these tangled labyrinths we are brought face to face with the primitive ages; we are present at the worship of the infant Church; we observe its rites; we study its institutions ; we witness the deep emotions of the first believers as they commit their dead, often their martyred dead, to their last resting-place; we decipher the touching records of their sorrow, of the holy hopes by which they were sustained, of “their faith triumphant over their fears," and of their assurance of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting
* Ariosto, Orlando Furioso.
We read in the testimony of the Catacombs the confession of faith of the early Christians, sometimes accompanied by the record of their persecution, the symbols of their martyrdom, and even the very instruments of their torture. For in these halls of silence and gloom slumbers the dust of many of the martyrs and confessors, who sealed their testimony with their blood during the sanguinary ages of persecution; of many of the early bishops and pastors of the Church, who shepherded the flock of Christ amid the dangers of those troublous times ; of many who heard the words of life from teachers who lived in or near the apostolic age, perhaps from the lips of the apostles themselves. Indeed, if we would accept ancient tradition, we would even believe that even the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul were laid to rest in those hallowed crypts--a true terra sancta, inferior in sacred interest only to the rock-hewn sepulchre consecrated evermore by the body of Our Lord.
As the pilgrim to this shrine of the primitive faith visits these chambers of silence and gloom, accompanied by a serge-clad, sandaled monk, he seems like the Tuscan poet wandering through the realms of darkness with his shadowy guide.
“Ora sen' va per un segreto calle
Tra l' muro della terra."*
His footsteps echo strangely down the distant passages and hollow vaults, dying gradually away in the solemn stillness of this valley of the shadow of death. The graves yawn weirdly as he passes, torch in hand. The flame struggles feebly with the thickening darkness, vaguely revealing the unfleshed skeletons on either side, till its redness fades to sickly white. Deep mysterious shadows crouch around, and the dim perspective, lined with the sepulchral niches of the silent community of the dead, stretches on in an apparently unending vista. The vast extent and population of this great necropolis overwhelm the imagination. Almost appalling in its awe and solemnity is the sudden transition from the busy city of the living to the silent city of the dead ; from the golden glory of the Italian sunlight to the funereal gloom of these sombre vaults. The sacred influence of the place subdues the soul to tender emotions. The fading pictures on the walls and the pious epitaphs of the departed breathe on every side an atmosphere of faith and hope. We speak with bated breath and in whispered tones, and thought is busy with the past. It is impossible not to feel strangely moved, while gazing on the crumbling relics of mortality committed years ago, with pious care and many tears, to their last, long rest. In this silent city of the dead we are surrounded by a “mighty cloud of witnesses," "a multitude which no man can number," whose names, unrecorded on earth, are written in the Book of Life. “It is scarcely known," says Prudentius, “how full Rome is of buried saints—how richly her soil abounds in holy sepulchres."
*“And now through narrow, gloomy paths we go,
'Tween walls of earth and tombs.”—Inferno.