The catacombs the destination of the Great Jubilee - Enrico Dal Covolo
Jubilee 2000 Search


Enrico Dal Covolo


The catacombs have been defined as the Church's "great archives". They are the most outstanding monumental testimony of the early Christian faith and the temple of the first martyrs, who sealed their fidelity to their Master with their blood.

«I am conscious of the important historical and spiritual significance of these monuments» John Paul II said in a recent address to the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology. «By visiting these monuments, one comes into contact with the evocative traces of early Christianity, and one can, so to speak, tangibly sense the faith that motivated these ancient Christian communities... How can we fail to be moved by the humble but eloquent traces of these first witnesses to the faith?». Then considering the goals of the Year 2000, the Pope concluded: «Today attention is focused on the historic event of the Great Jubilee, when the Roman catacombs will again become a favourite place of prayer and pilgrimage... Together with the great Roman basilicas, the catacombs should be a necessary destination for the Holy Year pilgrims».

So, very appropriately, the Pope linked his reference to the catacombs to what he had written in the apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente: «The Church of the first millennium», we read in n. 37, «was born of the blood of the martyrs: Sanguis martyrum - semen christianorum. The historical events linked to the figure of Constantine the Great could never have ensured the development of the Church as it occurred during the first millennium if it had not been for the seeds sown by the martyrs and the heritage of sanctity which marked the first Christian generations». The notes we propose here intend to recall the circumstances and protagonists of the Christian community in Rome at the beginning of the third century. Bishop Callistus (217-222), who gave his name to the famous catacombs on the Appian Way, had a privileged role in this community.

The history of Callistus

According to the Liber pontificalis (the section we are concerned with here was compiled in the sixth century), Callistus was Natione Romanus, ex patre Domilio, de regione Urberavennantium: so he was born in Trastevere, the dock area of Rome, where the sailors from the Ravenna fleet were quartered. The "first act" of his story is narrated by an anything but impartial source. This is a second pseudo-Origen series of books Against all heresies, published for the first time in Oxford in 1851. Very soon these books were attributed to a certain Hippolytus, whom we will speak of later.

According to the ninth book of this series, at the time of the Emperor Commodus (180-192), Callistus was in Rome, a slave of Carpophorus, who in his turn had been freed from the emperor's household. He was tried twice, once for the failure of Carpophorus' bank, the other for offences during the Jews' religious functions. Condemned ad metalla [to the quarries] in Sardinia, he was freed through the intercession of Marcia, the emperor's concubine.

The "second act" of his story takes us to Rome. Zephyrinus, the successor of Pope Victor (189-199) put Callistus in charge of the catacomb complex on the Appian Way: a prestigious appointment, and one of mediation between the Christian community in Rome - which were the legal owners and administrators of the property by rights of association - and the civil authorities. On the death of Zephyrinus in 217, Callistus was elected bishop. He did his utmost to enter into dialogue - certainly not an easy one - with the two opposing theological movements in the Roman community: on the one side, those who supported the Logos and its personal subsistence, on the other those who upheld Monarchianism, i.e., the rigid unity of God. The greatest danger of the former was "ditheism" (professing two gods: the Father and the Son), while the danger of the latter was "modalism" (the Father and the Son would be merely two different "modes of self-manifestation" of the one God). Among the supporters of the Logos the author of the Confutation includes himself, whereas he accuses the Pope of being in league with the latter. «After the death of Zephyrinus», our source attests, «believing he had attained what he desired [i.e., the episcopate], Callistus excommunicated Sabellius», the pioneer of the Monarchian heresy, «thus thinking he would be able to avert the Church's accusation of heterodoxy: in fact he was an unscrupulous cheat, and for some time had won everyone over to his side. His heart was full of poison and his mind void of ideas. He was even ashamed of telling the truth, because he had publicly insulted us as ditheists, and on the other hand he was continually accused by Sabellius of betraying his first belief».

The testimony - severely invalidated by the author's passion - is however useful for reconstructing the extremely difficult position of Bishop Callistus, who was certainly not an observer, but he felt the responsibility of his office very much. In fact, his behaviour shows he was a pastor much more than a theologian.

As long as it seemed possible, the Pontiff tried to find a middle way which would allow theological pluralism and safeguard ecclesial communion. But when he realized that compromise was dangerous for orthodoxy, he excommunicated the two extreme wings (first Sabellius, and then the author of the Confutation), and so he strengthened communion in the Church community. In this way Callistus - very different to how it appears in our book of the Confutation - shows he is a prudent and diligent pastor, capable of governing energetically the community entrusted to him.

The "last act" in the story of Callistus reveals the shepherd, who gives his life for his sheep. Here we abandon the Confutation of all heresies and consider the Pope's Acta martyrii.

According to the somewhat hagiographic-legendary indications of a later elaboration, these acts are probably the only ones, among the many that date from the Empire of Alexander Severus (222-235), which contain a historically acceptable "core" and a correct reference to the emperors in question (Alexander and his predecessor Antonino Heliogabalus). Now, according to our sources, it seems that in the year 222 - so in the same chronological context as the uprisings that accompanied the tragic end of Heliogabalus and his mother Soemia - the Pope was dragged from the house where he lived in Trastevere, thrown into a well, and stoned (... per fenestram domus precipitari, ligatoque ad collum eius saxo, in puteum demergi, et in eo rudera cumulari). The account in the Acts is substantially confirmed by the excavations and reports of A. Nestori (1968-1985) regarding the catacombs of Calepodius on the Aurelian Way.

In fact it is known that Callistus was not buried in "his own" catacombs, evidently because the Christians of Trastevere found it more convenient to hide the remains (together with those of the priests Calepodius and Aesculapius, who were murdered with him) on the Aurelian Way, rather than on the Appian Way. Now, the discovery of Callistus' original tomb - transformed in the fourth century by Pope Julius into a cemeterial basilica - confirms the decisive affirmation of the Depostio Martyrum (14 October), according to which Callistus was buried at the third mile on the Aurelian Way. Finally, Nestori's excavations brought to light some paintings from the cemeterial basilica dating at the latest from the seventh or eighth centuries, which in their turn confirm the cruel dynamics of the martyrdom transmitted by the Acts (scene of the stoning at the well and the martyr's burial).

But the story of Callistus does not end with his death, if it is true that the Christians, on bad terms with the Trastevere innkeepers (the dock area was famous for the quantity of its cellae vinariae [wine cellars] and popinae [eating-houses]) were willing to institute legal proceedings in order to use the place sanctified by his martyrdom for their religious observances. On his part, the Emperor Alexander Severus, who succeeded Heliogabalus in 222, took a stand officially so that the contest would be solved in the Christians' favour: "He declared (rescripsit) it more opportune" the Storia Augusta declaims literally, "that that place be dedicated in any case to divine worship, rather than be given to the popinarii".

In short - from what we have been given to understand - this is what must have happened. We know that the house where the Pope was born was in Trastevere. With all probability Callistus himself changed it into the domus ecclesiae and set it aside for liturgical celebrations. As we have already said, he was dragged from this house and taken to the area below it, where he was martyred. In memory of their bishop, the Christians wanted to rescue that place from the profanations of the popinarii, at the cost of involving the Emperor himself in their cause (on the other hand, Alexander Severus' tolerance, if not also his liking for Christians, was well known).

So Matthiae, in his famous book on The Churches of Rome from the fourth to the tenth Century goes so far as to say that among the first centres of Christian worship in Rome "the oldest, whose historical origins we can know today with absolute certainty and whose site can be specified with good approximation, is the titulus Callisti... Near the present-day Church of St Mary in Trastevere the small church of St Callistus could mark the exact spot where the ancient titulus rose". Much later, in the ninth century, the bodies of the martyrs Callistus and Calepodius were transferred to the church of St Mary in Trastevere. Since then Callistus has rested beside his home.

The "question" of Hippolytus

According to the reconstruction confirmed for more than a century by historical critical essays, Hippolytus - a prestigious representative of the Christian community in Rome, a learned theologian of the Logos and champion of a rigid moral discipline - was at loggerheads with Zephyrinus, and above all with his successor Callistus.

In fact this was due not only to doctrinal differences, attested by the Confutation of all heresies, but also to personal reasons of ill-conceived envy, because Callistus had been chosen instead of him as Bishop of Rome. The conflict came to a head and there was a total breakdown between them. Hippolytus had himself nominated bishop and founded his own Church, dragging with him into the schism part of the clergy and faithful of Rome. In this way Hippolytus became the first «antipope» in history. The schism continued during the papacy of Pontian (230-235). But he - as we will see - managed to bring Hippolytus and his group back into the Church communion.

Both Pontian and Hippolytus were involved in the persecution which - according to Eusebius - Maximinus the Thracian unleashed against the Christians "because of his hatred towards Alexander Severus, appointed mainly by Christians". Consequently, on the death of Alexander in 235, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia and condemned to the metella.

Then Pontian, the first in history, resigned as bishop of Rome. It seems that he did this above all so that the Church would not be left in difficulties with his unavoidable absence, but also in order to make it easier for Hippolytus to return to the community. So Pontian had the joy of welcoming the reconciled Hippolytus, and together they both shared the palm of martyrdom. Finally, in the list of the depositions of the bishops of Rome which precedes the Liber Pontificalis, we read that Hippolytus was buried in Tiburtina, whereas Bishop Pontian was buried in the catacomb of Callistus.

In actual fact this reconstruction is based on a skilful combination of sources. It represents the final result of a confusion of personages, probably homonymous, which must have occurred very early. Already the first Church historians, Eusebius and Jerome, were its victims in the fourth century. Eusebius, in particular, speaks of Hippolytus as the "head of a Church", and he attributes a certain number of literary works to him, including a Computo Pasquale; Jerome explains that Hippolytus was a bishop, but he confesses that he has not managed to clarify his See.

This confusion of personages is intensified by a couple of facts which bear two symmetrical dates: 1551 and 1851. In 1551 a badly mutilated statue of a person on a throne came to light. On both sides of the throne and on the right rear upright post there were some carved inscriptions. There one could read a list of works and a Computo Pasquale, which was immediately identified with the one attributed by Eusebius to Hippolytus. Therefore, in restoring the statue between 1564 and 1565, Pirro Ligorio named it «Hippolytus, bishop of Porto, who lived during the reign of the Emperor Alexander». So this is why the list of works engraved on the throne, together with the Computo Pasquale was attributed to Hippolytus.

In 1851, instead, E. Miller published for the first time, under the name of Origen, the Confutation against all heresies. The first book had been known since from 1701; the second and third are still missing; the books from the fourth to the tenth, recovered in a Greek manuscript from Mount Athos, are now in Paris. Very soon the block of ten books was attributed to that same Hippolytus portrayed in the statue discovered three hundred earlier.

The brilliant reconstruction, confirmed by the authority of A. von Harnack and generally included in text books, thus ended up by identifying Hippolytus as a very prolific writer - comparable to Origen for the vast amount of his interests, if not for his speculative depth -, an exegete and homilist, a anti-heretical writer, chronicler and polemicist.

But the difficulty in attributing to the same author works that were culturally, theologically and linguistically different, turned out to be the wedge capable of demolishing the whole building. The first attack on the "tradition" was launched in 1947 by P. Nautin, and there were two others in 1976 and 1988 by a group of Italian scholars, among whom were V. Loi, who died prematurely, M. Simonetti and - with regard to the famous statue - M. Guarducci. At present, whatever hypothesis one may wish to adopt, the "question of Hippolytus" is far from having a satisfactory solution for all its aspects: in any case Loi's and Simonetti's solutions to divide the works of Hippolytus between two homonymous writers seems to interpret the facts we have better than any other.

According to this hypothesis - which seems very probable - we should distinguish at least two people with the name Hippolytus: an Asian Hippolytus, to whom should be attributed above all the block of exegetic works, and a Roman Hippolytus, who could coincide with the martyr mentioned in the list of the Depositions. There is no reason to doubt the historical existence, martyrdom and deposition of this Hippolytus, even though the details in his biography need to be subjected to a careful critical examination.


The historic remembrance of the catacombs of St Callistus have allowed us to recall an eventful and interesting "section" of the Christian community of Rome at the beginning of the third century. From this we can take at least two points for reflection, which may be of some use to cultural and pastoral workers who will take pilgrims to the catacombs.

First of all a general methodological reflection. The first centuries in the Church's history, and especially the memories of the catacombs, are often dealt with in a « pre-Christian» manner. Too much space is still given to uplifting little stories which do not stand up to critical analysis. So superficial emotion, which enters into a state of crisis in confrontation with science, runs the risk of becoming a "stumbling-block" instead of an occasion for growing in the faith. From this point of view it will also be opportune to examine again very carefully the publications for pilgrims.

In actual fact this is an undertaking that has already been started admirably: as an example we could mention the successful book by A. Baruffa, Le catacombe di San Callisto. Storia - Archeologia - Fede [The catacombs of St Callistus. History - Archaeology - Faith], published in its third edition by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, and now translated into several languages.

The other reflection concerns the subject-matter we have discussed. What teaching can be drawn from it? More in general, what kind of teaching can we obtain from the history of the early Church? The question is very complex and it demands a detailed answer. In fact, if we are to reap the heritage and teaching of the early Church, we must overcome two extreme contrasting dangers.

On the one hand there is the danger of those who expect to find in the Christian origins idealized formula or remedies that can be used immediately in the Church's today. Vice versa, the paradigmatic "stories" of Callistus and Hippolytus show that the pilgrim Church in the world is the manifestation of the divine and the human: the good seed grows in her path, but the enemy has sown darnel there. Thus recourse to the experience of the early Church can never exonerate the believer from serious discernment.

It is true, for example, that before the society of the second and third century Christians were the subject of a "new culture" in close confrontation between the classical heritage and the Gospel message: but the patristic solutions to the faith-culture dialogue (as the personalities of Callistus and, as far as we can know, that of Hippolytus demonstrate) were not in any way unambiguous. In any case they must be considered as « historic accomplishments, and they do not possess, as such, any other teaching than that of history, which in itself is already very lofty» (R. Cantalamessa). The other danger is that of those who are unwilling to accept the "original charisma".

On our part we are convinced that the study of the ancient Christian witnesses is important, and even essential, for the Church of all times. In fact the first period in the Church's history - of which Nicaea is in many aspects an objective goal - preserves its charisma: it is the period in which the deposit of the apostolic faith is consolidated in the Church's tradition.

To remain with the example we have just cited, it must be recognized that the style of encounter between faith and culture in the first three centuries bore decisive fruits - fruits which will never be forgotten - on the level of language, preservation of different cultures and the whole of history, the individuation of a common "Christian soul" in the world and the formulation of new proposals for human society. So it is very useful to go back to the "Church of the catacombs" and study it carefully in order to understand and interpret our own ecclesial season, now on the threshold of the third millennium.