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Colleen DulleOctober 13, 2023
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian bishops' conference, and Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, walk through Rome's Catacombs of St. Sebastian as Msgr. Pasquale Iacobone, president of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology, gives them a tour as part of a pilgrimage by participants in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Oct. 12, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Yesterday, the participants in the Synod on Synodality spent the afternoon away from synod discussions and made a pilgrimage through the St. Sebastian catacombs, the burial place of at least three early Christian martyrs. According to legend, the catacombs are also where the remains of Sts. Peter and Paul were hidden during the persecution of Roman Christians in the third century.

My colleagues, Zac Davis and Ashley McKinless, accompanied the synod members on their journey; Ashley mentioned how impactful it was to be in the catacombs with Cardinal Stephen Chow, the bishop of Hong Kong who formerly headed the Chinese Jesuits. Here is a man who leads a persecuted church in a place that testifies to the persecution of some of the earliest Christians.

I was even more surprised when, after the tour, Zac showed me the booklet participants had been given for their prayer service: It included the full text of the Pact of the Catacombs, a little-known (at least among Americans) yet extremely influential document signed by 42 bishops in the Catacombs of Domatilla just weeks before the end of the Second Vatican Council.

The bishops, largely Latin American, were inspired and challenged by the council’s discussions on poverty and stirred by the realization that they were not living the poverty that they believed the Gospel called them to. A few of the document’s 13 points include:

  • Living a lifestyle that is materially similar to their parishioners (e.g., living in an ordinary house, not going out for expensive meals and taking public transit)
  • Not being called by prestigious titles
  • Not holding bank accounts or real estate in their own names
  • Entrusting financial administration of their dioceses to lay people
  • Advocating civil and international policies that would “permit the poor masses to overcome their misery”
  • Being open to all people, regardless of religion

The document ended up being signed by some 500 bishops in the following months, and it went on to inspire Latin American liberation theology, which led to the social justice advocacy and martyrdom of Catholic bishops, priests, religious and lay people like Sts. Óscar Romero, Rutilio Grande and the churchwomen of El Salvador, to name just a few.

It was this church that Pope Francis was raised and ministered in: one in which the bishops’ chosen material poverty and ecclesiastical humility led to synodal groups like Christian base communities—Scripture study circles that happened in people’s homes, which were most participants’ first time reading and interpreting the Bible—all the way up to the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) today.

Zac told me that the Pact of the Catacombs, although it was distributed to the members, wasn’t mentioned in the prayer service. But its inclusion points to an important through-line from early Christianity to the Second Vatican Council’s desire to reclaim the character of the early church to the current synodal process.

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