We learned of some sad news regarding one of the ASU students. She received a call last night by cell phone that her father died in a car accident. For privacy sake I will not share her name but I do ask you to remember her and her family in your prayers at this time. The faculty is working with her to get her back home early.
Michael Schwartz sent me an email this morning sharing with me that they may or may not make it to our site lecture at the San Callisto Catacombs along the Appian Way. We decided as a family to go on ahead on our own since we are a ten minute walk from our apartment to the catacombs.
In spite of the morning’s news it was a beautiful day of mild temperatures, low humidity and a blue sky framed by flowing, sap-green fields. The grounds are meticulously kept, making for a striking contrast to the urban grit of the city center. There are no vehicles driving through with the exception of a few chartered buses parked discreetly behind one of buildings. Workers are constantly sweeping and trimming caring for this ancient place of burial.
The catacombs served as the burial grounds for Roman Christians in the first several centuries. Romans chose cremation while early Christians chose a simple burial because of the belief of Christ’s immanent return with the bodily resurrection of the believers. In the city, however, burial was not allowed. Christians dug an estimated 375 miles of tunnels lined with tombs many layers deep.
Touring the catacombs is always guided and we had a pleasant English-speaking guide from Germany, who took us three or so “floors” down into the cool volcanic tuff stone earth. Along the way we passed the engravings of the early tombs and, with the tour guide’s blessing, I made several penciled “rubbings” of various early Christian symbols.
Towards the end of our tour there were a couple of areas set up within the catacomb for taking communion. Should we ever lead a church group to Rome, this would be an essential visit and a fitting place for worship. It is, however, not true that the catacombs were where Christians met in secret for fear of persecution. Historians have well documented that if a Christian wanted to hide (and indeed there were many times that is what they did desire) they would not do so in the conspicuous location of the catacombs, but simply disappear within Rome itself.
Following our tour through the catacombs we ambled our way down a section of the Ancient Appian Way, or “Via Appia Anitqua.” This road was built in 312 B.C. and eventually stretched 430 miles. Along this road it is said that there were 6000 slaves on crosses spaced 30 yards apart for over 100 miles. This road was an important military and political arm of the Roman Empire. It was also the road that Paul the apostle traveled on his way to Rome as a prisoner. We read about this in Acts 28:15 where fellow believers waited on Paul to pass through in order that they might join him. Tradition is that Paul never left Rome, but was later executed.
We walked along this road which is still used today by vehicles, although there is a section paved with original stone and lined with the ubiquitous cypresses one sees in stock photos of Italy. We found a small café and plopped down for some sodas and cappuccino. After resting for a few minutes I glanced up and realized that our shade tree was a rather old olive tree. Olive trees are, by the way, all over the place.
After refreshments we wandered back through the grounds of San Callisto and were pleasantly surprised to meet up with the class. They decided to come and tour the catacombs anyway, although they were an hour or so later than scheduled. It was nice to catch up with the students and hear their shared concerned for their grieving classmate. Several of them had gone on side trips over the weekend (Michael has not scheduled classes on the weekend but has graciously volunteered his time to take me and anyone interested to explore various churches on and off the beaten path). While some of the students have taken him up on this offer including yours truly, many have braved the rail system and visited places like Pompeii, Naples and Cinque Terre. We have yet to leave the city, choosing instead to fully explore this place. I am still amazed at what I have not seen. Perhaps later this week or weekend we will move beyond the confines of Rome.
This evening we entered the city center to enjoy the sites and sounds of Rome at night, something we have not had a chance to do since arriving. Frankly, by the time evening arrives each day we are too tired to add one more thing to the agenda. It does not help that I am by nature an early riser which is not a good practice of night prowling.
The city, like any large international city, stays crowded and busy most any time of the day or night. In the evening musicians are at the corner of every piazza strumming, honking, and singing. We encountered one old fellow who had a small speaker and microphone lip synching an Italian aria.
It was a pleasant time not having to race from one place to the next. We walked with no particular agenda, found a ristorante and dined on pasta and meat dishes, and kept on walking while watching people laugh and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Rome.
Tomorrow I have an early start visiting some more churches and their treasures.