Pope encourages faithful to visit Rome’s ancient catacombs during Holy Year

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Rome catacombs
Participants in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops walk through the Catacombs of St. Sebastian in Rome after praying at Rome's Basilica of St. Sebastian as part of a pilgrimage Oct. 12, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Everything found in ancient Christian catacombs — from hand-painted frescoes to ancient graffiti — speaks of hope, Pope Francis said, encouraging the faithful to visit these underground cemeteries during the Holy Year 2025.

“Indeed, the theme of the Jubilee, ‘Pilgrims of hope,’ finds a unique and evocative expression precisely in the catacomb routes,” he said during an audience May 17 with people taking part in a plenary meeting of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, the Vatican office in charge of safeguarding the Christian catacombs of Rome.

A pilgrimage in the catacombs is an occasion “to experience the meaning of Christian expectation and hope; it reminds us that we are all pilgrims, on our way to the goal of the encounter with God, who in the Risen Christ calls us to share his bliss and peace,” he said.

Carved inscriptions, including the word, “Peter,” can be seen in this photograph taken Oct. 12, 2023, inside the Catacombs of St. Sebastian in Rome. The apostles Peter and Paul were crucified and buried in different parts of Rome, but their relics were temporarily transferred together to the Catacombs of St. Sebastian in 258 on June 29, their feast day. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

Signs of early Christian pilgrimage

“There we find the many signs of the early Christian pilgrimage,” he said, such as “very important graffiti” addressed to Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome’s Catacombs of St. Sebastian where the two apostles were venerated together around 250 A.D.

The catacombs often depict “the most ancient Christian symbols and depictions, bearing witness to Christian hope,” and “the bliss of paradise, evoked with figures of lush plants, flowers, verdant meadows, peacocks and doves, grazing sheep,” he said.

“In the catacombs, everything speaks of hope, everything: it speaks of life beyond death, liberation from danger and from death itself,” the pope said.

“The Christian catacombs will naturally be one of the most significant destinations” of those visiting Rome during the Jubilee, he said.

Highlighting the tombs of martyrs

Pope Francis praised the commission for their proposal to highlight, in view of the Jubilee, the tombs of the martyrs, “whose memorials are dotted along the catacomb paths.”

Jesus is seated on a throne with his disciples at his side in this fresco seen during the unveiling of two newly restored burial chambers in the Christian catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome May 30, 2017. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world’s oldest Christian cemetery. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

“Christian hope is witnessed above all by the martyrs,” he said, and “to pause before them brings us face to face with the courageous example of these Christians, always topical, and invites us to pray for the many brothers and sisters who suffer persecution for their faith in Christ today.”

He also applauded a decision to expand the number of catacomb sites that are accessible to visitors “in order to allow a greater number to visit them and thus be strengthened in faith and hope.”

“The message of the catacombs speaks to all, to pilgrims and also to distant visitors; it speaks from an experience of faith,” he said.

Carol Glatz

Carol Glatz writes for Catholic News Service.