Saturday, August 25: The catacombs in the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C. are “faithful copies of those in Rome,” according to a publication by the Monastery. Many scholars have written that the Roman catacombs came about to help persecuted Christians to bury their dead secretly.
The Martyr’s Crypt in the catacombs is a circular chapel much like those found in the maze-like hiding places of the early Christians. Here the relics of St. Benignus, brought from the Roman Catacombs, are encased in the wax figure beneath the altar.
From this crypt, a short passageway leads to the Chapel of Purgatory. This chapel is dedicated to the faithful departed and is meant to remind us of the fleeting nature of this life. The paintings and decorations are symbolic of death and of the life to come.
Here the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for the souls of those “who have gone before with the Sign of Faith and who sleep the sleep of peace.”
Beyond the Purgatory Chapel are two chapels typical of the larger ones of the ancient catacombs — those dedicated to St. Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr, and St. Sebastian, Soldier and Martyr. Both have altars which house faithful replicas of statues found in Rome.
On the walls of the chamber between these two chapels are some beautiful paintings.
We end our time inside the Monastery catacombs in the Nativity Grotto, faithfully reproduced here as it exists now in Bethlehem. The altar in the center niche is like that of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Beneath the altar is a silver star which commemorates the spot where Christ was born.
The Bethlehem Grotto is hung with garlands from Christmas; the guide tells us that people who have been to Bethlehem and who come to this grotto say it looks just like Bethlehem, except without the garlands.
Finally, we climb out of the catacombs and explore the church on our own. It’s difficult to get a good photo of the beautiful stained glass windows, but I finally get one that’s passable.
St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, is the patron saint of animals and the environment and is one of the two patrons of Italy, along with Catherine of Siena. He is also known for his love of the Eucharist, for his sorrow at the Stations of the Cross, and for the creation of the Christmas Nativity Scene.
St. Francis, born around 1181, was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi and lived the high life as a young man. When he went off to war in 1204, he was directed in a vision to return to Assisi, where he lost his taste for the worldly life. On a pilgrimage to Rome, he begged with beggars at St. Peter’s and decided to adopt a life of poverty.
St. Francis believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” and even preached to the birds. He was known for his great love of animals and he had a deep sense of brotherhood that led him to embrace those for whom Christ died. It’s argued that, more than any other man, he imitated the life, and carried out the work, of Christ in the footsteps and manner of the Savior.
He called the Holy Land the “Pearl of the Missions,” since Jesus was born, lived, ministered and died there. In 1217 the Province of the Holy Land was established, which included then and still includes today Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes. St. Francis visited the Holy Land in 1219, during which time he tried, unsuccessfully, to convert the Sultan in Egypt. In 1224, he received the stigmata, making him the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ’s passion. He died in 1226 while preaching Psalm 141.
The Franciscans have succeeded for over 750 years in the conquest and preservation of the Holy Places in the Holy Land.