Focus 2008

Catacombs St Callisto - ICC01-11-2008

Project: Catacombs San Callisto
Date: From 1930
Place: Rome
Province: ICC

In 1930, Pope Pius XI

In 1930 Pope Pius XI,  invited the Salesians to look after, on behalf of the Holy See,  one of the most precious testimonies given by the Church in the early centuries, a piece of land fertile with saints and martyrs, and the goal of many pilgrimages. Fascination for this “martyrs' plot of land” has attracted pilgrims even today and they continue to come, turning up from all parts of the world. A large number of these pilgrims, some hundreds of thousands every year, are young people. We are talking about the Catacombs of St Callistus in Rome, “the most august and celebrated of the Roman Catacombs” (Pope John XXIII), “Catacombs par excellence, first official cementery of the Roman Communities, glorious final resting place for around 16 Popes from the 3rd Century” (Giovanni Battista de Rossi).  Today, after 78 years of continuous service by the Salesians, the Catacombs of St Callistus are served by a community of 30 Salesians coming from 14 nations.

The Catacombs of St Callistus

The Catacombs of St Callistus are the most ancient collection of burial places, and the best preserved, on the Via Appia. Having begun towards the end of the 2nd Century from a huge burial area belonging to the Church, managed autonomously by the Church authorities, they took their name from Deacon Callistus who was asked to administer the area by Pope Zeferinus. When he in turn became Pope, Callistus enlarged the complex and it became the burial place for sixteen Roman Pontiffs from the 3rd Century (Crypt of the Popes). One goes down a steep staircase at the catacombs, which leads straight to the Crypt of the Popes, via a small opening, a cubicle where St Ceclia's tomb lay: on the walls you can see paintings going back to the 5th and 6th centuries, amongst them the oldest extant image of the Saint in an attitude of prayer. It was from here, in 821, that Pope Pasqual I brought the martyr's sarcophagus to the Church which bears her name in Trastevere.

Once you leave St Cecilia's crypt, you go further along to an ossiary, with layer upon layer stretching to around 4 metres high, and then along a gallery opening on to a series of cubicles known as the "Sacraments" due to paintings alluding to Baptism and Eucharist. After visiting the huge sarcophagus "of Pope Milziade", the path leads off into other areas belonging to Saints Gaius and Eusebius in what is knwon as the "liberiana" because of three inscriptions said to belong to Pope Liberius (352-366), where the archways are painted with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Continuing on you can come to a primitive set known as the "Crypts of Lucina",  where you find the tomb of Pope Cornelius decorated in Byzantine style and, nearby, two frescoes, one with the "Good Shepherd and a prayerful figure" and the other two fish with two baskets of bread and a glass filled with wine, evidently symbols of the Eucharist.

For organisational and security reasons visitors and pilgrims may only visit a small section of the Catacombs, but this already leaves an unforgettable impression. Just knowing that you are in touch with places where some 56 martyrs and 18 saints are buried becomes a powerful spiritual experience. No wonder then that you see so many groups of young people, catechetical, scouts, students, scholars, etc. coming from all over the world to the Catacombs to breathe in the fresh air of faith.

Salesians and lay guides to serve in the Catacombs.

Visitors are led by guides in their own language for a 30 minute tour with plentiful explanation which is more than just history and culture. Each visit becomes a catechesis par excellence which leaves a strong impression. To make the visit more meaningful still some seek the possibility of celebrating Mass down there. There are dozens of Masses every day in various languages, along the cubicles in the Catacombs, and they seem to join in with the murmured prayers of the saints.

The Catacombs of St Callistus attract Salesians from all over the world who, as guides, give part of the life to this service. Some have been doing it for more than 50 years while others come to St Callistus just for a brief period of service. Direct contact with the “Saint's burial plot”, the possibility of knowing places tied in with Don Bosco, getting to know some Italian, a wider knowledge of Roman history, etc. are some of the advantages for the Salesian. There is no lack of young volunteer guides, either, especially in summer, who strengthen their faith in harmony with the profound message of the primitive Church.

More detailed information in different languages can be found on the web site or by directly contacting the St Callistus Catacombs:

Address: Istituto Salesiano S. Callisto
Via Appia Antica, 126
00179 Roma
Tel: (+39) 06.513.01.51
Fax: (+39) 06.513.01.567
Web site: