I just finished showing some friends of mine our church of Saints John and Paul here in Rome and realized once again what a wonderful place it is to describe some history of the Catholic Church.
Underneath the present church are excavations that are among the most important in Rome–houses from the second century, about 20 rooms in all– which reveal a great deal about daily life in the ancient city. The excavations are now the responsibility of a government sponsored agency, the “Fondo Edifici di Culto – Ministero dell’Interno.” You can get to them through a side entrance along the Clivus Scauri.
I’m interested especially in the ancient house church found in the excavations, which goes back to the earliest days of Christianity when, as the Acts of the Apostles is the first to indicate, believers throughout the empire met in homes or small, inconspicuous buildings for worship. The house church developed in a complex of 2nd century apartment buildings and a wealthy home along the Clivus Scauri, an ancient street that winds down the Celian Hill towards the Palatine.
The wealthy home became a Christian center, decorated with Christian paintings and a mosaic floor. So before Constantine brought freedom of worship to them in the early 4th century, Christians from the Celian Hill, most likely influential Romans for the most part, worshipped here, just a short distance away from the imperial palaces and buildings at the heart of official Rome.
Here they baptized new members and celebrated the Eucharist much like St. Justin, a second-century Roman writer, describes in his Apology, a letter addressed to the emperor, but really intended for the Roman public with mistaken ideas about Christianity:
“No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.
We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.
The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: Do this in memory of me. This is my body. In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: This is my blood. The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.
On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give assent by saying, “Amen”. The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.
The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, in prison, or away from home. In a word, he takes care of all who are in need.
We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.”
That’s a rather complete description of what went on in this house church in the 2nd century. Think about it– Justin says a lot in those few paragraphs.
I noticed the agency controlling the excavations offers the opportunity to come on certain evenings to hear archeologists describe what happened in these old Roman houses. I wonder if they make use of Justin’s description of 2nd second Christian worship. Hope so.
The story of this complex gets even more interesting. According to tradition, John and Paul, officers of the Emperor Constantine (312-37), suffered martyrdom by execution in the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363), and were buried here in their own house. So this is also a site where Christian martyrs are honored. Another dimension is added to the story of this place.
Early fifth century Pammachius, a Roman senator, who evidently own the complex (it’s called in early documents the “titulus Pammachii”–he has the deed) built a church over the complex of buildings. Now freed from second class status by Constantine’s efforts, the Christian communities of Rome began to build fine churches. Eventually, Pammachius’ church was called the Basilica of Saints John and Paul.
My hypothesis, which I’ve developed in an earlier blog, is that Pammachius’ church, built in the “show area” of Rome, as Krautheimer calls it, is part of a Christian effort to influence Romans still resistant to Christianity by offering them a vital spirituality that is both biblical and monastic.
Then the barbarians and earthquakes came, and those dreams seem to have come to an end. But the old church is still there. Who knows how God works?
I’d like to make a video presentation about this. Mauro is coming to Rome next week.
Help me, Mauro.