Love among the catacombs

Surrounding Washington are a series of beautiful places that most people never pay much attention to: cemeteries.  Like Rome before, Washington’s cemeteries are on its peripheries.  Historically, dead bodies were always interred outside city boundaries for reasons of hygiene.  As a result, however, they take on their own sort of civic identity, becoming necropolises, “cities of the dead.”

Visiting cemeteries is an important part of Christian existence.  It helps us keep up a real relationship with those who have gone before us: each visit to a loved one’s grave is a little sacrifice we can offer up for their sake, contributing to their journey to heaven.  Such visits can also serve as important reminders of our own mortality… a reality many prefer to ignore.  And those reminders aren’t just a help to our own [hopefully] distant judgment, but to our daily lives here and now.  St. Philip Neri told the faithful of Rome,

“An excellent way of keeping ourselves from relapsing into serious faults is to say to ourselves every evening, ‘tomorrow I may be dead.'”

Philip’s suggestion is full of a typically dark Roman humor, but I’ve found it very practical.  He certainly had taken time to consider the Last things (death, judgment, hell and heaven).  For the first few years after St. Philip’s arrival in Rome, he spent considerable time walking among the catacombs outside the city walls.

It was an odd practice.  The old cemeteries had not been mapped at that point.  Grave robbers and other unsavory types were known to seek refuge in the catacomb tunnels.  There was no light save the candle St. Philip brought with him, and the tunnel paths were far from stable.  It should also be mentioned that unlike today’s well preserved and clean pilgrimage sites, the catacombs in Philip’s day were filled with dead bodies!  Despite all that, Philip felt drawn over and over again to visit these holy sites, to commune with those who’d gone before, especially the martyrs.

It was a monastic period in St. Philip’s life.  New to the city, he had disappointed his family’s hopes for his future in business.  Philip knew he wanted to serve God, but wasn’t sure how.  He earned his bread by tutoring the children of a local merchant, didn’t really know anyone.  His catacomb walks were, perhaps, distilled expressions of a deeper loneliness he experienced walking the streets of the living city, pondering his future. Nonetheless, from within that solitude a voice began to speak to St. Philip, the voice of God our Father.  He was directed to serve the needs of the poor and of pilgrims entering the city after long grueling journeys.  From among these good deeds a small cadre of disciples began to emerge surrounding St. Philip and evangelizing the city.  They became the Oratory: a loose family of priests and lay people bound together by charity and a commitment to the evangelization of culture.  They changed the history of Rome and so the whole Church!

In spite of the crowds that flow up and down DC’s avenues each day, so many people feel as if they’re walking among open graves… alone, scared, worried about falling into a pit at any moment.  It’s true, one can certainly look at an urban life’s journey that way… and given the trials and tribulations so man people face each day, I get it.  Even as a priest, I sometimes feel like I’m walking alone among the ruins.  But Philip’s experience reminds us that there is another way to use our solitude… to use it as a time of privileged listening for the Love of God.  Surely he’s calling each of us to a path like St. Philip’s, by which we do works contributing to the building up of something truly great.  This week, apropos as we approach Lent, consider visiting one of DC’s cemeteries… drive in, park your car and take a walk among the graves.  You may find a surprising clarity and approach things differently when you return to the city of the living.

“Who walked for so many years among the catacombs, pray for us!”
-from the Litany of St. Philip by Bl. JH Newman