I’m standing outside an ancient Christian house church on the Clivus Scauri in Rome. Now, of course, it’s in the ruins beneath the Church of Saints John and Paul here on the Celian Hill, but you can see parts of it when you visit the excavations there.
What was it like back then, I wonder, at the end of the 2nd century, when it was the only Christian building on this spot? What would it be like to knock on the door–say on an ordinary day in the year 210 AD –and ask about the group who met here. What would I find?
First, most Christians meeting here had their own homes in this area and came to this house periodically. They lived and worked in this neighborhood of wealthy estates and common apartment houses, some perhaps even serving in the imperial government on the adjacent Palatine Hill and forum.
Whoever I found here, possibly the priest who led the community, would be open to questions. There are other Christians too in the city and beyond it, he would tell me, and he could point out their meeting places–about 25 places in the city alone. Infact, our numbers are growing, he would say, although we’re only a small part of the city’s population. We know each other pretty well.
He would describe the Christians who met here as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God sent to save our world and us all, and he would probably explain their belief using a summary of faith they knew by heart.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord,
who was born of the Virgin Mary,
who was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
who die and was buried,
who on the third day rose again.
He ascended to heaven,
where he sits at the Father’s right hand,
He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
The Christian I met would surely tell me their faith was God’s gift and it was brought to this city more than a hundred years before by Peter and Paul, two of the apostles of Jesus, and those who followed them. He could show me their graves where they were honored. Peter was buried in a cemetery on Vatican Hill; Paul was buried along the Via Ostia, where some from this community buried their own dead.
Most likely, he would relate in vivid detail the terrible persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero (64 AD). That awful memory would still be fresh. If his family were Christian for some generations, he may have lost someone in it. After a disastrous fire swept the city, Nero blamed Christians for the tragedy and had Peter and Paul and other Christians killed, some in the gardens nearby.
In that persecution there were heroes, martrys, but also, there were some who denied their faith and betrayed members of their own community. When it was over, there were disputes whether to admit them back into the community or not. Finally, the fallen members were taken back, but some still wondered if that was the right decision.
Being a Christian is still dangerous, he would warn me. Another Nero could come along. About a hundred years before, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in Syria, came to Rome under guard to be put to death in the arena. In a letter to the churches of this city be begged them, particularly those with influence in government, not to stand in the way of his death for his belief in Christ. (107 AD) Other church leaders were killed since then.
Our spokesman would relate the recent executions in North Africa of two women, Perpetua and Felicity, who died for their Christian belief. (202 AD) Not only were Christian leaders in danger, every Christian, man or woman, faced misunderstanding and prejudice in Roman society.
In the Roman empire, Christians didn’t fit in.
The Christian I would meet here in this house church would undoubtedly acquaint me with the works of Justin, an articulate Christian philosopher who tried to make a case for Christianity by writing to the emperor explaining that Christianity was in harmony with the ancient wisdom of Rome. He also engaged the Jews in debate about the Messiah. Justin didn’t get far; he met the same fate as some others: he was executed. (165 AD)
This community is trying to figure out its relationship to Judaism, he would tell me, as it increasingly distances itself from its Jewish past. Marcion, a Christian in Rome, called for complete rejection, not only of Jewish practices, but also of the entire Old Testament as unworthy of the Christian religion.(140 AD) The main body of believers rejects his approach, but still, how can so many of those stories of harsh justice be understood today?
The “great church,” the church throughout the world, as he describes it, is also wary of gnostic teachers who come into its assemblies from time to time speaking cynically about the world and ordinary life as it is. They’re good talkers and say they know things that will help you rise above everyday struggles and live in another, higher world.
The leaders of the church, however, are reacting to them and warning their communities that there’s only one true knowledge, which comes from knowing Jesus Christ, who came in the flesh. Stick to what you know from the Peter and Paul and the other apostles of Jesus. But we also know that we have to make the teaching understood and valued by us today and those we talk to.
Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, is especially strong and persuasive against the errors of these new teachers. He’s particularly strong in telling us to hold on to what we have received. True Christian teaching comes from the apostles and is found in their writings. Naming the books that contain their teaching, he urges the churches to continue to read them as they celebrate the mysteries, especially the mystery of the Eucharist. (200 AD)
“If then the cup of mixed wine and the bread that is made, receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist of the body and blood of Christ, how can they deny that the flesh is receptive of the gift of God?” A good reminder where God’s life and wisdom may be found.
God is the creator of heaven and earth; there’s no other world where we can know and serve him, the mystery of our Eucharist says.
Like others, this church on the Celian Hill meets regularly to celebrate this mystery, to pray and to care for the poor.
Already, at this time, the churches of this city have a special place among all the churches of the Christian world, our spokesperson would tell me. Peter and Paul taught and died here. The bishop who is the overall leader of Rome’s churches is a respected voice in the Christian communion. The churches in other places listen to him.
I think that’s what I would hear if on an ordinary day in the year 210 AD I stopped at this house church to inquire about those who met here. I’m sure I would recognize it as the same church I belong to now, even though some things about it are different.
Like the church in any age, the community that met at this old house church had its ups and downs. It wasn’t perfect, but surely it had its saints. It faced challenges brought by time and circumstances. It didn’t have all the answers. But it was supported by Christ, the Good Shepherd, who had it in his hands, as he has today’s church in his hands.
One thing more. There are martrys honored in this house church, the most important of them are John and Paul, Roman officers put to death by the Emperor Julian the Apostate in the late 4th century, according to tradition. Eventually, they gave their names to this entire complex. Supposedly they were buried here in their own house for their refusal to do the emperor’s bidding.
Were they the owners of this house church? Certainly not the original owners, so then, when did it come into their hands? A complicated story. But this old house church still speaks in its ruins.