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The feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, today and tomorrow, are when Catholics all around the world celebrate the saints and pray for the dead. On such days it is worth remembering that the very first Roman Christians turned their tombs into places to remember the martyrs, pray for the dead, and celebrate their belief in the Resurrection.
Like all Roman burials, Christian burials were required to take place outside the walls of the city. But rather than simply entombing the dead, Christians — who were often persecuted and unable to declare their faith publicly — constructed underground burial chambers called catacombs, where the dead could be remembered and prayed for. These hidden chambers were decorated with signs of faith that Christians could not ordinarily share on the streets of Rome. Later, many functioned as chapels or churches for the celebration of Masses for the dead. Today, the catacombs are still visited by people of all faiths, drawn to the hope displayed there.
Here is a list of the most inspiring catacombs of Rome:
Catacombs of Callixtus
Also known as the “Crypt of the Popes,”as the crypt contains the remains of several popes that were buried here between the 2nd and 4th centuries, the Catacombs of Callixtus are one of the best preserved from early Christianity. This network of tunnels was created by order of Pope Callixtus I and contains the remains of 60 popes and 50 martyrs of early Christianity. The well-preserved burial site was discovered by Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi, who, thanks to ancient Greek inscriptions, could identify the tombs of at least five popes: Pope Pontian, Pope Fabian, Pope Lucius I, Pope Eutychian and Pope Anterus.
Catacombs of Praetextatus
Built over an existing burial site for Roman aristocrats, the Catacombs of Praetextatus functioned for a while as a basilica and as the base for early popes including Pope John III (561-574). Among the saints buried here are Urban, Felicissimo, Agapitus, Quiring and Gennaro. This nearly 2,000-year-old structure is one of the most elaborately decorated catacombs in Rome, featuring Carrara marble, engravings depicting biblical scenes such as the coronation of Christ with the crown of thorns, and impressively preserved frescoes depicting the four seasons.