It is only a few days ago that I stood in a narrow corridor of the catacombs of St. Callixtus at Rome. The air there is damp and cold, ceilings glisten with crystals of condensed moisture, brown tufa stone is stained with age. Dark walls are pierced with surprisingly slim, shadowy cavities which once housed bodies of Christians of the first ages, the ages of bloody persecutions alternating with brief periods of uneasy peace with the surrounding pagan world.
Half a million Christians (and some non-Christians), including the first 16 popes, were buried in the catacombs, this giant underground cemetery.
The simplicity of these burials shames us today when average burial costs are about $10,000 and still many prefer to scatter the ashes of the dear and near, rather than bury them in blessed ground, often to save money on the plot.
'The righteous flourish like a palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.'
Early Christian burials were free of charge, as the catacomb areas were property of the Church or simply, the Christians – who shared them with brothers and sisters in faith. Digging, or rather carving out the space for the deceased, was paid for too – by the wealthy Christians to allow those less fortunate to await the resurrection among their own.
Burials were simple. After prayers, the bodies, wrapped in white shrouds, were placed in spaces provided for them in the wall, sprinkled with lime and sealed off with a simple slab, inscribed with name and (sometimes) a symbol of faith – a Good Shepherd, a dove, a figure of a praying person with arms raised, nothing fancy.
When one reads Christian writings of this period, one can sense an atmosphere of quiet but immensely strong faith. Early Christians' idea of the end times had little to do with the Day of Wrath and Doom which we can read about on the Internet among the 2012 predictions. It was rather like a sudden but sweet awakening to eternal joy and the embrace of the Beloved.
How many martyrs were there, among those half a million Christians buried deep in the earth? How many bodies slipped into the "locula" were torn by the teeth and claws of wild animals, burnt, beaten and broken, or beheaded? To refuse to renounce Jesus – to refuse to put a few grains of incense on the altar of the emperor or pagan gods – all that merited sure death, confiscation of property, disgrace for all one's family, annihilation.
The empty burial places in the brown ancient walls each have their own story to tell, but few are known. Few, except the crypt of St. Cecile, a young girl of 14 who was beheaded after an attempt to suffocate her in her own baths failed.
Her body was found 400 years ago, incorrupt. A marble statue was made of this body, showing her just as she was found, all the details preserved by a great artist of the time. Then her body was buried under the altar of the church in Rome while the statue replaced her in the niche of the catacomb wall.
A white slim girl lies on her side, her head turned awkwardly away, with the slash of a sword marking her neck. A small hand draws attention – three fingers are extended defiantly – one for each person of the Holy Trinity.
A mute sign of a mature, stubborn, fantastic faith of a teenager who never texted, played with an iPod or chatted on Facebook – but who became one of the seeds of the faith that grew quietly but powerfully, like a mustard seed, like a seedling of a cedar.
She never stopped being that evangelical seed. Why can I say that? Because I saw tears in the eyes of the young Canadians standing there looking at her.
After we all emerged into the bright day of Via Appia, we talked. This is how I learned that for this young man, and quite a few other youthful Westerners who saw the statue of St. Cecille, she suddenly became a real person, almost their contemporary. She was no longer "history," not a piece of art, not a curio, nor a legend. She was a heroine of faith, someone to admire and follow.
Such is the power of a real evangelical seed – it never stops giving life, even after 2,000 years.