THE CITY of Rome. Called by men the "Eternal City." Over nineteen centuries ago the apostle Paul came to this remarkable city as a prisoner.
It has been our blessing to travel over part of the same route taken by Paul as he finally reached the capital of the Roman Empire. Paul was greeted by brethren who came as far as Appiiforum (Acts 28:13). We are alone now, nineteen centuries later, but at least we are free men. A great change has taken place over the centuries in the people, but very little has changed over the Old Appian Way, or Appia Antica as it is now called. A service station, new homes and new pavement are here.
Dick Armstrong and I have traveled in an open horse drawn buggy, the kind of taxi so common in Southern Europe. It provided us with a sentimental view of the past as we passed from the well preserved wall of old Rome along a few miles of the Old Appian Way. Fig trees, bamboo and other low growing shrubs, bushes and trees appear behind and sometimes hang over the walls that are on either side of the Way. The walls have often been repaired through the centuries, but they retain much of their picturesqueness.
Whole blocks in the city of Rome, which we were just leaving by buggy, contain well preserved remains of ancient Rome. Here the people cling to the greatness of the past. In one way it is beautiful, in another it is not. Ruins are the results of human war and human failure. It was to lay the foundation for the Kingdom of God which will change civilization and bring peace, that Paul came to Rome along this way SO many centuries ago.
The reason for our trip was to visit the Catacombs of Sc. Sebastian, located a few kilometers from the old city wall on the Old Appian Way. We wish that most of you could have taken this visit to the catacombs of early century professing Christians. It is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Also it provides an insight into the CHANGES THAT OCCURRED IN THE EARLY CHURCH AS THE TRUTH WAS STAMPED OUT BY APOSTACY.
Most visitors take for granted that these catacombs, and also many others located nearby, were the centers of refuge for the early true Christians when they were persecuted by the Roman Empire. This assumption is false as we quickly saw upon entering them. The early true Christians were not persecuted nearly as much by the pagan Roman Empire of the Caesars as they were by the later apostate Church. The book of Revelation shows that it is the woman, a picture of this apostate church, not the civil government, that is drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus (Revelation 17).
Actually most of the early persecutions by the Roman Empire were directed against apostatizing Christians who were seeking to gain control of the Empire and to substitute their religion for that of the existing one by means of "Christianizing" pagan rites. Because of this persecution, those early apostates had to go underground in order to continue their rites. How coincidental this is with the description in Revelation 13 that the second beast (this apostate religious system which has gripped the world ever since) came up out of the ground! That is not only symbolic — it occurred literally!
Along with many other visitors, we were invited into the Church of St. Sebastian, which is built over the catacombs, by a member of one of the Church orders. He explained most of the details to us in English. The church is many centuries old and in need of repair. Inside was a beautiful carved and painted ceiling, a detail of which represented the martyrdom of Sebastian, for which he was called "Saint" Sebastian. On the right wall of the Church, enclosed in a glass case, are the supposed footprints of Jesus made by him at a law appearance. This is one of the hundreds of traditions of the Church, the fables against which Paul warned. (2 Tim. 4:4).
Duplications of these footprints are in the Quo Vadis Church, located only a short distance from these catacombs, on the Appian Way. Tradition, not fact, claims that at the site of the Quo Vadis Church, Peter was met by Jesus as he was fleeing from the Romans. After supposedly seeing the Lord he returned to face martyrdom, hanging upside down from a cross.
Next to the footprints and also enclosed in glass is an arrow, presumed to be one of those which brought death to Sebastian. Exactly opposite these relics the statue of Sc. Sebastian appears in a reclining position, pierced by four arrows.
From the level of the church floor we descended to the catacombs below. Walking single file down a narrow stairway, we soon emerged into a large underground room, wherein were altars used for religious services by early bishops. The bishops who used the altars were leaders in the apostacy. There are crude images of Jesus and a cross as well as ritual parchments used in the idolatrous beginnings of the mass and Sunday communion.
Then came the catacombs. We followed in single file in the narrow passage ways, guided at first by recently installed electric lights, and then only by candle light. Often the monk conducting the tour would stop to light various candles located on the dirty stone walls beneath pictures and images of saints and Mary. There are several larger rooms along the passage ways which descend into the earth at least four stories. In these rooms we could see the remains of broken earthen jars used for oil which were buried in niches in the walls. Below and above are other niches containing skulls and a few important bones. Sometimes the graves are little coffins of stone on the floors of the underground rooms. The tops were removed and the bones are lying in open view.
A strange sensation came over us upon thinking of the resurrection. Some of these people would finally come forth in the day of judgment and have their deceived minds opened for the first time. It is wonderful to think of the plan of God and to visualize his power to impart material life into such human remains.
Perhaps some of the decaying bones were of those people who heard the apostle Paul preach against giving heed to fables, but who rejected his preaching. For them there is no hope of repentance. "For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened... if they shall fall away, to renew them again to repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame." (Hebrews 6)
For eight miles these catacombs continue beneath the church in several level$ It is a veritable city of the dead containing 174,000 graves. The dark, bleak hallways and the various little rooms give an awesome feeling of the terribleness of that mystery of iniquity that supplanted the truth of God with pagan rites and finally was able to come above ground and conquer the Empire.
Following the faint light of the wooden stick which held the candle, we emerged exactly beneath the church in the most amazing part of the entire catacombs. Here before our eyes were three pagan tombs antedating the Christian Church. They were unknown to our world until 1919 when they were excavated, but they were known to the early apostate Christians. In fact the very reason for building the church and the catacombs at this site was that the pagan Romans had been conducting many of their mysterious rites underground and were also burying their dead in this place. Those Romans were adopting the apostating Christian religion and were continuing to frequent the same places of religious service.
Many of the early Catholic churches were merely dedicated Roman temples. And Roman tombs became Catholic Christian tombs. The most beautiful of the three tombs in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian is that of Clodius Hermes. On its very well preserved walls are pictures of ancient swastikas, and of birds, one of which may have represented Osiris, the famous god of Egypt. These oriental mystery religions provided many converts to the early Catholic Church. So in order to sanctify this most colorfully decorated tomb, a tradition was developed that this tomb was the burial place of the apostles Peter and Paul before they were supposedly removed in later centuries. Peter was sent to the House of Israel, not to Gentiles (Gal. 2:7; Mat. 10:6).
So widespread did this false tradition become that upon the walls above we observed many invocations to the apostles made in succeeding centuries of persecution. The invocation of saints — and the doctrine of the communion of saints — is of totally pagan origin. It stemmed from the custom of invoking the tutelary gods of the pagan world. Most of the inscriptions are hardly legible and very crudely done in stone.
It was indeed a profitable experience to come here to see first hand the places where the mystery of iniquity worked, but how glad we were when we emerged into the warmth of daylight.