As the saying goes, "Rome wasn't built in a day," and neither were the catacombs. It took a few centuries to perfect this underground refuge and burial grounds for the Christians as the persecutions continued in Rome. The catacombs came about as a result of fellow Christians burying their own. The Christians followed the Jewish custom of burying their dead in contrast to the Romans' practice of cremating the dead. However inside the city proper, there was little ground suitable for digging graves deep enough. Therefore, the Christians migrated outside the walls where there is a rock known as Tufa which enabled the Christians to dig down into this mass of hard soil. These underground tunnels bored through rock were mostly found near the lowlands, especially near the church of St. Sebastian along the Appian Way where so many Christians were buried. The Latin word for "near the lowlands" was ad catacumbas which evolved into "catacombs." Bodies were ceremoniously buried in the rock walls on either side of the long, narrow and winding, dank corridors of the catacombs. In wider areas of the catacombs, or rooms, were buried the martyrs and those whom living Christians held in deep respect - many of them saints. As the persecutions and the hunt for Christians intensified, many of the followers of Christ literally went underground to avoid capture. There they gathered and celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, often on top of the martyrs' coffins or building permanent altars into the walls. This is where the practice began of embedding the relics of a saint into the altar. The barren walls of the catacombs and the hand-hewn coffins afforded space to carve the tenets of the True Faith in tribute to the dead and as encouragement to the living. Christians in those times expected to die for their faith so they did not cower in the catacombs, but retreated their often not as much for safety as a refresher in the faith and to be with those of like mind and heart. How they were able to continue so long without wide detection still remains a mystery today for one would think the Romans would have been able to infiltrate these refuges and root them out. Yet, protected by the angels, saints and God Himself, they rallied to the call of Christ for centuries from these underground sanctuaries. This was especially prevalent at the beginning of the Third Century.
Pope Saint Zephyrinus had just been elevated to the Chair of Peter in 199 AD. In the 18 years he governed as the 15th Pontiff, Pope Zephyrinus met with bitter theological struggles including dealing with Gnosticism, Praxeasism which denied the doctrine of the Trinity, Manescheism which was the doctrine of two eternal beings - Light and Dark, and Marcionism. The most heart-rendering decision Zephrinus had to make was excommunicating the noted Apologist Tertullian who stubbornly clung to some of Marcion's theories regarding sin. Born in Carthage around 160 AD, Tertullian was well-educated in Greek and Latin lit, eventually earning honors in law, specifically in Rome. In 193, after studying Christianity for some time, he converted to the faith. Shortly after he returned to his native-Carthage to defend the faith. With his expertise in Latin he became known as the "Father of Ecclesiastical Latin" with his greatest work being the "Apologeticus" in which he clearly theorized how Christ's one, true Church was the only faith. It was Tertullian who immortalized the words, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity." For all the good he did, unfortunately because of his stubbornness and fanatical stance toward certain points in the tenets of faith, such as being too severe toward sinners. He was in content, the first Calvinist. Though his works have been studied and admired by many saints, those points and his insistence on following the teachings of the heretic Marcion forced Zephyrinus to painfully have to excommunicate Tertullian. There are reports that shortly before he died in 240 he amended his thinking and asked forgiveness of the Church.
To offset Tertullian's pride, God rose up another who was undaunted in defending all tenets of the faith. This was Origen who had been made head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria in 203. Twenty seven years later he was removed for he had not notified his bishop that he had been an ordained priest for quite some time. The bishop forced him out, but Origen moved on to Caesarea opening another school that would become as renowned as his former school in Alexandria. Because of his widespread notoriety as one of the greatest defenders of the faith and the fact Origen had been promoting the idea that there was comparative peace throughout the Roman empire as a result of so many conversions to Christianity, the Emperor Decius decided to make an example of Origen. Thus he was arrested and inhumanly tortured in efforts to get him to forsake his faith. But he would not budge from the goal of following Christ to the end. Fearing a backlash from the people over the apparent inability of the Roman emperor to break this man of God, Decius had him released. However, Origen who had grown feeble and brittle from being beaten to a pulp lived only a few more years...yet he lived those years in freedom defending the faith to his dying breath.
The last of the well-known Apologists was Saint Cyprian. A student of both Tertullian and Origen, Cyprian hailed from wealthy lineage in Carthage. This teacher of rhetoric became a Christian in 245 and was moved by the passage in Matthew 19: 20-30 about the rich man. Unlike the rich man who walked away, Cyprian embraced Christ's words and gave all he had to the poor and became a beacon of faith to all his followers. He wrote numerous volumes defending the Church, specifically his well-known defense: "On the Unity of the Catholic Church" in which he staunchly asserted that "outside the Church there is no salvation. He cannot have God as his Father who has not the Church for his Mother." Cyprian was marytred in 258 at the hands of the Emperor Valerian.
Some of those who had heard and responded to Cyprian sought a more contemplative life to live, pray and offer mortification. Thus, some of them retreated from Alexandria and Carthage toward the deserts of northern Africa to live by themselves in order, they reasoned, to be closer to God. These men were called hermits, recluses or Anchorites and the first of these holy solitary men were Saint Anthony of Egypt and Saint Paul of Thebes. They attracted many followers, and though they came together to teach, Anthony and Paul insisted on solitary not only for themselves but their followers as well. Every hermit was assigned their own cell, spending their day in prayer and fasting. These were the forerunners of the monastic, cloistered contemplative orders that would evolve in later centuries. Many of these hermits had studied under both Origen and Tertullian and though the latter had been excommunicated, his writings still inspired the faithful.
Tertullian also wrote about the staggering blooming of Christianity throughout the Roman empire, "We are but of yesterday, yet we crowd your cities, your colonies, your army, palace, Senate, Forum. We leave you for yourselves only your temples." This attitude of "deal with it" left the Roman emperors seething - from Septimus Severus to Maximian to Decius to the most vile of all, Diocletian, they all vowed to crush Christianity as we shall see in the next installment when we treat the persecutions of the Third Century and the tactics used by pagan Rome to crush Christianity. Little did they know of Christ's words in Matthew, "...and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."