Last Monday, Pope Francis celebrated the feast of All Soul’s with a Mass held in the ancient catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. It was Francis’ first visit to the underground catacombs and in some unscripted remarks during the mass he said that he was led to think “of the life of those people who had to hide, who had this culture of burying their dead and celebrating the Eucharist inside here.” It’s a lovely sentiment but there’s a small problem: Christians never hid in the catacombs. The idea that they did is an 18th and 19th century myth for tourists.
Pope Francis isn’t alone in thinking that persecuted Christians hid from the Romans in the network of 40 or so narrow subterranean tunnels and small chambers that make up the Christian catacombs in the eternal city. The idea that mad emperors and the bloodthirsty Roman people forced the Christians into communicating via the cryptic fish symbol as a way to avoid capture and execution is a fairly common story. To be honest, I heard the same legend in Sunday school and even today if you were to hire a poorly educated tour guide you might well hear this legend too.
In the case of the catacombs part of the mythology is related to the tourist practices of the 18th and 19th centuries. Though the catacombs were rediscovered in the 16th century, their excavation has taken hundreds of years, primarily because they weren’t initially structurally sound. When utensils and plates were unearthed in the catacombs, some assumed that Christians had been forced into living and hiding there during the so-called “age of persecution.”
This interpretation was influenced by some late antiquity legends. Jessica Dello Russo, director of the International Catacomb Society, told The Daily Beast that a third century story in which Pope Sixtus II was captured in burial grounds and “references to the work and activity of popes in the cemeteries in sources like the Liber Pontificalis (Book of the Popes)” contributed to the idea of Christians living and hiding underground.
This interpretation easily became a fact. For example, Rome-based nineteenth century missionary Dr. Wolfred Cote’s wrote in his 1876 Archaeology of Baptism, “During the dark days of imperial persecutions the primitive Christians of Rome found a ready refuge in the Catacombs.” Alarmingly Cote’s statement is still cited in some modern Christian books today.
But the mythology was especially appearing in the 18th century because it appealed to the Romantic sensibilities of the era. As a result, tours of the catacombs were incorporated into the Grand Tour of Europe and wealthy young men who wanted to complete their education with travel were sure to visit it during their journeys.
The origins of these misconceptions is at least partially due to an exaggerated sense of how extensive the persecution was. When we think of early Christians we tend to imagine that they were under continual and constant attack. Yet for much of the first four centuries of the Common Era, Christians lived and celebrated openly and without fear of arrest or imprisonment. When the fiercest period of persecution—the Great Persecution of Diocletian (303-306)—began, the first act of aggression against the Christians was the destruction of a church in Nicomedia that was built caddy corner across from the imperial palace. Hiding and worshipping in secret? Hardly. In fact, as Dello Russo told me, many ancient catacombs had halls above the crypts for ritual celebrations. If you had wanted to find early Christians, you would not have had to look very far.
For Francis, the idea of worshipping in secret does valuable work. He stated that even in the modern day there are some who still practice their Christianity behind closed doors. “It was an ugly moment in history,” he said, “but it has not been overcome.” There are “many catacombs in other countries where people even have to pretend they are having a party or a birthday in order to celebrate the Eucharist because it is banned.”
Given that the pope is trying to help Christians who are being persecuted in the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia, surely he can be given a pass here? Well, yes and no; there are three reasons why misinformation should be corrected. The first, though pedantic, is that accuracy matters. In a modern context in which groups want to make claims about truth, it doesn’t look good to continue to peddle long-debunked legends as statements of fact. What other things, a skeptical observer might ask, aren’t quite true?
The second reason is that Francis doesn’t have a monopoly on connecting ancient persecution to modern politics. At a talk at Liberty University in January 2016, future president Donald Trump said that “Christianity is under siege” in the United States. Sociologist Andrew Whitehead published a paper in 2018 that showed that “voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage” and a better predictor of voting that any other element of identity. An article in The Christian Post in July 2019 offers predictions that “persecution is coming” to America and explicitly connects that promise of persecution to the early church. It’s not a one-off piece, either. Mike Pence told Liberty University graduates in May that “freedom of religion is under assault” and they should expect to be harassed for their religious beliefs. That some conservative Christians would perceive themselves as under attack during the Obama years makes a certain kind of strange sense. That those same groups would continue to make these claims during the Trump-Pence administration suggests that these conservative American evangelicals have a persecution complex. This complex can be traced back to the 1960s and is rooted in a rather inaccurate understanding of Christian history.
The third reason is that, even without the ties to martyrdom, the catacombs have a lot to offer. As a kind of “underground city” they give us access to a part of Christian history that is otherwise hidden from view. How we bury our dead communicates a great deal about our values and our hopes for the future. Some of our earliest Christian art is found in the Roman catacombs. The depiction of biblical scenes of the three young men in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lion’s den, and Jonah being regurgitated by a large sea creature (I’m sorry the Bible does not say whale) all gesture to the development of early Christian beliefs about the afterlife. For modern Christians, visiting the catacombs can be an enormously emotional experience. Dello Russo told me, “I remember my first trip (to [the catacombs of San] Callisto), and first impressions can be overwhelmed by Christian narrative, because, for many of us (Francis and I are both Americans), we’ve never seen anything quite that old materializing our faith.” Visitors still have to navigate the narrow passages and uneven steps that the ancient Romans used. The physical reality of ancient life surrounds you in ways that it does not in the breezy openness of the Colosseum or the Roman Forum. You don’t need a persecution myth to bring the catacombs to life.