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St. Cecilia and the History of the Roman Catacombs

Nov. 22 is the feast of St. Cecilia, for centuries one of the most beloved martyrs. Her name occurs in the centuries-old Roman Canon of the Mass, also known as the First Eucharistic Prayer. The Basilica of St. Cecilia in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood is one of the loveliest in the city, and stands over the remains of her palace (you can go down into the crypt to see the saint’s home). And Cecilia is revered as the patron saint of music and musicians because, the legend says, on her wedding day, when the hired musicians sang bawdy songs, she sang a song to Christ in her heart.

After her martyrdom, Cecilia was buried in a catacomb outside the walls of Rome just off the Appian Way. That catacomb is known as St. Callixtus.

The Christians of Rome buried their dead — martyrs and non-martyrs alike — in the catacombs, and visited the tombs just as we visit the graves of our family and friends. On the anniversary of martyr’s death, they met at the saint’s tomb for Mass, which is the origin of our feast days. But over time, cave-ins made it dangerous to visit the catacombs, and earthquakes often sealed up the entrances. Gradually, the remains of the martyrs were from the catacombs and enshrined in churches. Gradually, the locations of the catacombs were forgotten.

We can pinpoint the day when interest in the catacombs was reawakened — May 31, 1578. That day, workers on the Via Salaria Nuova were digging up volcanic stone known as pozzolana. Suddenly they broke into a long-forgotten catacomb that ran beneath the vineyard. Exploration of the catacomb revealed sarcophagi, inscriptions, and paintings of scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

The discovery caused a sensation in Rome. It also ramped up one of the greatest points of contention between Catholics and Protestants: the veneration of sacred images. Protestants liked to portray themselves as the true heirs of the ancient Christians, while dismissing Catholics as interlopers who introduced all manner of pagan corruptions into the Christian Church, among these the veneration of images, which Protestants regarded as idolatry. The discovery of a catacomb filled with sacred art delighted Catholic apologists and discomfited their Protestant opponents.

Read more at National Catholic Register

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