The catacombs, too, left a deep impression on me. They were exactly as I had imagined them when reading the lives of the martyrs. After having spent part of the afternoon in them, it seemed to me we were there for only a few moments, so sacred did the atmosphere appear to me.
In her famous diary, “Story of a Soul”, Thérèse of Lisieux so describes her visit to the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, along the Via Appia. The French saint (born Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin in Alençon on 2 January 1873, and died in Lisieux on 30 September 1897), took part in a pilgrimage to Rome in 1887, year of the priestly jubilee of Pope Leo XIII (whom she had the chance to meet and speak to briefly, during her stay).
The word “catacomb” derives from a Latin expression describing the underground cemetery under the Basilica of Saint Sebastian (located between the 2nd and the 3rd mile of the Via Appia) – “ad catacumbas” – which probably derived from the Greek “katà kùmbas”, meaning “near the grottos” or “in the dip”.
The Catacombs of San Callixtus are near those of Saint Sebastian. They were, according to archaeologist Giovanni Battista De Rossi, the first official cemetery of Rome’s Catholic community, where the popes of the 3rd century were buried. They were named after deacon Callixtus (who would become Rome’s 16th pope in the early 3rd century), whom pope Zephyrinus entrusted with managing the cemetery.
The complex dates back to the 2nd century and extends over some thirty hectares between Via Appia Antica, Via Ardeatina and Via delle Sette Chiese.
Amongst its most interesting parts, the Crypt of the Popes (where nine popes were buried) and the Crypt of Saint Cecilia; Cecilia was a noble Roman lady who lived between the 2nd and the 3rd centuries, buried here until her mortal remains were transferred in 821 by pope Paschal I to the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.
Thérèse mentioned Cecilia in a passage of her diary, revealing that with her sister Céline she secretly went to the bottom of the saint’s ancient tomb to take a fistful of dirt, consecrated by the saint’s presence.
Before my trip to Rome, she added,
I didn’t have any special devotion to this saint, but when I visited her house transformed into a church [i.e. the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere], the site of her martyrdom, when learning that she was proclaimed patroness of music not because of her beautiful voice or her talent for music, but in memory of the virginal song she sang to her heavenly Spouse hidden in the depths of her heart, I felt more than devotion for her; it was the real tenderness of a friend.