Seminarian for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati
On June 5th, the Rome Experience 2013 visited the catacombs of Priscilla. The holy site is a former quarry used for burial of Christians between the second and fourth century. As we made our way through the early Christian graveyard, their plight is apparent. From her earliest years, the Catholic Church has been rejected. Though she is a beautiful flower, swollen with the nectar of eternal life, she has been, as Christ Himself told us we would be, a sign rejected (see John 15:21) relegated time and time again to the basement.
The metaphor of the Church as a flower is not an accident. From the time of Jesus until A.D. 319, the Church was denied those things which the world thought she needed in order to survive. There are three things that every plant needs to survive: sunlight, water, and care. If a plant is denied any of these things, the plant will wilt and eventually die. This is what the ancient Romans were attempting to do as they persecuted the early Christians.
They denied her the sun. Those who persecuted the Church in her earliest days thought that, if the Church of Jesus Christ was to be destroyed, they would have to scorn her presence in their everyday lives. The early Christians were rejected from society because of the love Christ instructed us to bear towards the weak and disenfranchised of society. Saint Anicius Boethius is a perfect example. He was a philosopher and an advisor to the King of the Ostrogoths. Soon in his career, because of the love for the downtrodden of society that he learned from Jesus, he began to oppose his fellow advisors who would often accuse the poor unjustly in order to advance themselves and their own careers. He was accused of treason because of his defense of the defenseless and died a martyr in A.D. 523. They sought to take away the sun from St. Anicius by keeping him from practicing his Catholicism in his daily life.
The Church was denied water. The Romans made the very act of being a Christian illegal. Those who dared to accept the waters of baptism committed a crime punishable by death. In the early Church, the decision to be Catholic was not an arbitrary one. To choose to become Catholic or to practice one’s Catholicism was to mean death if and when one was discovered to be a follower of Jesus. And it was the tomb of these men and women whom we visited in Priscilla’s catacombs.
She was denied care. Often, early Catholics were abused because their faith clashed with the standards of the world. St. Agnes is one such example. There was a young pagan man who wanted to marry St. Agnes. She, on the other hand, had her heart set on Jesus. The pagan, unable to understand her love for Christ, attempted to force her to marry him. But she heroically clung to her purity and continued to refuse. Angry, the man took her to the square, stripped her of her clothing—attempting to rob her of her purity—and then took her life. The twelve year old was beheaded because of her love for Jesus Christ.
This was the scene of the first few centuries after the life of Jesus our Lord. The world did all they could to attempt to destroy the Church. However, as the catacombs attest to, she did not die, but the Church grew exponentially. What the world was too foolish to understand is that, while they can rob the Church of their sun, their water, and their care, they cannot not rob the Church of the true sustenance she needs. The Church has no need of the world’s acceptance because the Church has the Word of God and the virtues enshrined therein towards which she can grow. The Church has no need of the world’s water because she has the water of Baptism and the Bread of Life—the Holy Eucharist. And the Church has no need of the world’s care, because she has the Good Shepherd whose heart is on fire with love for his sheep and a desire to reconcile them in the flames of His heart to Himself.
To those who study Christian history without the light of Christ, it is preposterous that the Church still exists. They determine that their predecessors were not strict enough or did not try hard enough to stamp the love of Christ from our hearts. This is because the history of our existence, without the light of faith and knowledge of the power of God, is preposterous. So we should not be surprised when the world tries time and time again to deprive us of the things they think we need to survive. Rather, when the world stops watering us, we must go even more forthrightly to the Baptismal fount and to the Communion rails for our nourishment. When the world rejects us from their streets, from their classrooms, and from the public square, we must go even more to the Word of God and practice what He preached. And when the world fails to care for the broken, the downtrodden, we must head in haste to the confessional to reconcile and recommend ourselves more and more to the Heart of the Good Shepherd. This is what the Catacombs of Priscilla has to teach us.