Famously, Blessed Cardinal Newman wrote, “To be deep into history is to cease to be Protestant.” I am reminded of this because I was recently asked to answer some questions for a young man who was curious about the history of the Catholic Church. In this age of the internet where every viewpoint can be presented with little to no dedication to veracity, it was little wonder that the young man had a completely twisted understanding of history in general and ecclesial history in particular. I say, “little wonder,” but in truth it was still rather shocking and sad to me that so many, even amongst the Catholics I know, are unaware of exactly how well documented the Church’s early life really is. As a case in point, allow me to tell you the story of a Giovanni Battista de Rossi.
Born in 1822, Giovanni displayed great talent for classical learning very early on. By the age of fourteen, the boy could fluently read and write in Latin and Greek. He was enthralled with the ancient history of Rome and the subterranean world that housed hidden treasures of souls long departed. His friendship with the Jesuit Fr. Marchi provided him an opportunity to work in the Vatican archives, and while there he poured over documents seldom seen, documents with ancient references, documents that told of legendary Catholic places and figures.
It would behoove you to know that at this time in history, not too much unlike our own, the idea that the Catholic Church as we know it actually existed before the Middle Ages was an idea largely held to be ridiculous. Certainly there was a Christianity. But surely nothing like the Church of Rome. The scathing writing of the Enlightenment thinkers from the late 18th and throughout the 19th centuries had convinced most people that the priesthood, and much more so the papacy, was a Roman Catholic myth, invented to justify their inherently corrupting hold on power. Any notion from the average man that these existed before the stupefyingly dark ages of Medieval ignorance was mere pious idiocy. Even before this time, Martin Luther wrote, in his book titled Against the Roman Papacy Instituted by the Devil (catchy title no?),
I am content to be able to say, since I have seen it and heard it at Rome, that it is unknown where in the city the bodies of Saint Peter and Paul are located, or even whether they are there at all. Even the Pope and the cardinals know very well that they do not know.
Yet, in this world of legends and stories Giovanni lived in youthful and pious bliss. So it was that one fine Spring day in 1849, the same year that the Communist Manifesto was published, and at the ripe old age of 22, whilst the Roman birds sung their sweet songs of vernal joy to travelers on the ancient Appian road, Giovanni came across a piece of marble, which looked something very much like this:
Pieces of marble were constantly being found by farmers in the area. It is just a part of living in that world where history grows from the ground like the leaves of the acanthus plant that decorates the Mediterranean. This marble was probably dug up by the farmer attempting to ready his field for planting, and he tossed it toward the road. As fate – or should I say God’s good grace – would have it Giovanni, with all his peculiar knowledge, came across it on this day and at this hour. He examined the thing and began to wonder, as only a youthful lad can and does.
He recalled from his vast reading the legend of a Pope Cornelius who had been sentenced to exile by the new emperor Gallus. The emperor was a useless fellow, who had been put into power by the Roman army after the death of the Christian-hating Decius only to be killed by that same army two years later. Poor Pope Cornelius died in exile but was referred to in the martyrologies as not just a confessor but as a martyr. Furthermore, this Pope Cornelius, who reigned as the vicar of Christ from 251-253 was said to have been brought back to Rome and buried in the legendary Crypt of the Popes in the catacomb of St. Callistus. So perhaps, thought the youthful Italian lad, perhaps this is a marker for Pope Cornelius’ grave, which would mean that he’s buried in that field somewhere, which would mean that underneath lies not just the mythic Crypt of the Popes but also the original burial place of St. Cecilia, who was later moved to the Church in Trastevere that still bears her name, and all sorts of wonders within the famed – but never discovered – catacomb of St. Callistus. Yes, this was the reasoning of young Giovanni. This was the thought process of a young lad who had not lived long enough to know that silly dreams of an ancient Church were passé and never mentioned in polite company. These were the musings of a boy who dreamed to discover something true in an age of cynical doubting. And these were the notions that Giovanni Battista de Rossi took to Pope Pius IX.
Back then, the pope was a much easier person to go see. This was in large part due to the fact that the pope, and particularly this pope, was one of the most reviled figures in Europe. Pope Pius IX was attempting to deal with the terrors of the 19th century, terrors that found the Catholic Church at the business end of daggers, swords, fire arms, entire armies, and every quick-witted Christian-hater of the time.
Pius IX received the young Giovanni and heard his tale of finding the marble piece, and the story of the catacomb, and the crypt, and the proposal of digging in that field to see what lay beneath. The Holy Father listened with great aplomb, seemingly waiting for the boy to stop talking, and so when the he had finished the Vicar told him to get out of his office.
I like to imagine the diminutive pontiff’s hands gesturing with greater and greater force as he began in soft tone and crescendoed to nearly the perfect dramatic peak as he told Giovanni about the armies threatening to march on Rome, about the bishops of France who refused to recognize his authority, about the cardinal who was stabbed in broad daylight on the steps of a Roman basilica, about the shot fired at him by some mangy cur through the window of the Belvedere, about a Church falling around his ears and a world only too eager for him to die some horrible death. The pope had no time for fantasies, for legends and boyish tales about bygone days of the Church that no one believed in or could prove ever existed. He could not be bothered with any of that now. And so, poor young Giovanni sulked out of the papal apartment dejected and ruined.
I might suggest now to take a break from reading. Take a deep breath. Perhaps make yourself some tea. If you have some shortbread, take it out and settle in. The story starts to get good here.
As soon as Giovanni left the room, the Holy Father dismissed everyone. As his secretary passed, however, Pius IX grabbed him by the arm, pulled him close, and in something barely over a whisper told him, “Buy that land.”
You see, the Holy Father knew that if he had allowed for the digging immediately and in front of everyone in that room, word would have gotten out what the Church was up to. If they had dug and found nothing, it would be a major embarrassment, more proof that the Church had no ancient roots, and just the sort of fodder needed for the Church’s enemies to mount support against Rome. Pius IX quickly decided, as he listened to Giovanni’s story, to put on a big show, approach Giovanni privately and later through a liaison, buy the land, and start digging at night, quietly, without any news of it getting out. And thus was how the digging began.
Catacombs were a common thing in Rome. There was no doubt on anyone’s part that they were there under the Eternal City. They were, after all, the traditional way of burial for Romans since before Caesar Augustus called for the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The question was, were there ever any Christian burials in them of significance, and if so, did they represent an earlier form of the Church similar to that which existed in 1849 – or for that matter in 2011. So down dug Giovanni and he discovered this:
He indeed discovered the Crypt of the Popes with all the following popes buried there – though not all their epigraphs were found. St. Pontianus (230-235) – banished by the Emperor Alexander Severus to forced labor in the Sardinian mines, where he died from ill treatment. Pope Fabian had his remains brought back to Rome and laid within the crypt. St. Antherus (235-236) – his 43-day pontificate was spent in prison where he died. St. Fabian (236-250) – the large part of his pontificate was during a period of little persecution. He was decapitated when the persecutions of the Emperor Decius began. St. Lucius (253-254) – his short pontificate was during a period of violent persecutions. St. Stephen (254-257) [epigraph not found] – he was pope during the violent persecution of the Emperors Valerian and Gallienus. St. Sixtus II (257-258) – beheaded along with his deacons by soldiers of the Emperor Valerian. St. Dionysius (259-268) [epigraph not found] St. Felix (269-274) [epigraph not found] was martyred under the Emperor Aurelian. And St. Eutichian (275-283).
When Giovanni brought Pope Pius IX down into the crypt in the dark of the night, before anything had been announced to the world, the Holy Father slowly lifted his lantern to the epigraphs uncovered. He gazed in quiet amazement, pondering it seems. Then he did the only thing he could do upon seeing the epigraphs of his predecessors and the tribute written to them by Pope St. Damasus, there on the wall in marble, Pope Pius IX fell upon his knees and wept uncontrollably.
Giovanni did not know what to do. What, indeed, would you have done? After a time the young lad chose to place his hand on the shoulder of the Vicar of Christ and say, “You see Holy Father, it is not a fantasy. It is not a fantasy after all.”
The Holy Father was surrounded by the bodies of the men who had lead the Church during a time much worse that his. Their sacrifices would later ensure the Church over which he was now shepherd. He now knew that the legends of the early Church, of the popes and the rest could be true. He knew as doubting Thomas knew how blessed are they who believe and yet have not seen. He knew, above all, that his life had not been a waste. Pope Pius IX would go on to have the second longest reign of any pope. Second only to St. Peter himself.
Giovanni went on to become the grandfather of Christian archeology, and his works on the excavations beneath Rome are to this day considered some of the best ever done.
In closing, I’ll say the following: the Crypt of the Popes demonstrates at least a couple of things. The first is that the papacy had an established succession by at least the middle of the 3rd century, some two hundred years after the death of Christ. While that might not satisfy some, it certainly demolishes the notion that the office of Peter was an invention of the Middle Ages.
Second, the inscription of Pope St. Damasus – who used the new-found wealth and influence of the Church under Roman protection to renovate the Crypt by adding better access through stairs, a more regal structure, and his own Latin inscription – this pope wrote:
now that here lies united an army of saints
these venerable tombs contain their bodies …
here the followers of Peter, here lie the friends of Sixtus,
here young men and boys, the elderly with their offspring
here too, I, Damasus, confess, would like to be buried,
were it not for the fear of profaning the ashes of these holy martyrs
Note that Damasus does not say “the followers of Peter and Paul.” These two were the universally recognized founders of the Church in Rome, but the pope is the successor of Peter, not Paul. This theology seems to have definitively been constructed by the mid 4th century. So the succession was of a specific office held by Peter and not shared by Paul. This is very important to keep in mind when some claim that Peter had no special role or was merely the first among equals. If that were true, then where is the crypt of the followers of St. Paul? There isn’t any.
Lastly, every time I tell this story, people are astounded to hear it. I hope you have enjoyed this. Now, maybe, when someone comes to you with doubts about the early Church, you can direct them here to read the story of Giovanni Battista de Rossi and his Rome beneath the surface. But more importantly, I would have you leave with this: while my faith in Christ is not founded upon the dried bones of ancient men and women who lived many years after our Lord and Savior, I am very comforted to know that the Divine Physician understands our need to know that He is always with us, throughout history, in history, guiding history with the delicate care of a mother hen who gathers her own beneath her wings.
This story of Giovanni tells me I am loved by Him. That is what matters, and that is what I would like to speak to Pius IX and Giovanni about should I be granted the opportunity to visit with them in heavenly glory, and that is what I hope you take away from this.