Rome: Quo Vadis Domine?
Hello from Via Appia Antica in Rome. I would like to invite you to see this ancient road leading to the ancient part of the city. Via Appia Antica is the place where we visit the catacombs and Roman mausoleums. But I would like to begin exploring this road with this small church, called Quo Vadis Domine?
One of the articles that we were recommended to read as part of our preparation for the trip was “Were Christians Buried in Roman Catacombs to Await the Second Coming?” by Charles A. Kennedy. Here are some excerpts from this article that explain the importance of Rome for early Christians and why so many of them were buried in the Roman catacombs. Personally, I find these explanations fascinating!!!!
Otto Beyer, a German scholar, estimated that the catacombs in Rome contained more than 600 miles of passageways and that they hold five million graves. The Christian population in Rome in the first centuries AD can account for only a very small percentage of the burials in the Christian catacombs. Who then is buried there?
One of the theories that explain the high number of graves in the catacombs is the reburial of Christian remains sent from other parts of the Empire.
According to the early theological and eschatological scheme, the Messiah would come again at Jerusalem. In Jewish tradition, second burials would take place in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. The discovery of Christian ossuaries used for reburials on the Mount of Olives is solid evidence that Christian communities in Palestine followed this tradition known from Judaism.
Why would the tradition change and why would the second burial be moved to Rome?
The answer is: the Second Jewish Revolt in Judea in 132-135 AD. When this last Jewish effort to throw off the Roman yoke failed, Jews were denied entry to Jerusalem and to most other areas of Judea as well. This decree also affected a great many Christians who still considered themselves Jewish.
The questions was then where should the Christians be buried in awaiting of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ? The answer was: Rome.
Today’s scholars think that a substantial segment of the Christian community in the early centuries believed that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would occur in Rome. This is clearly reflected in the Acts of Paul and the Acts of Peter, which are biographies of the apostles written in the second century and never canonized in the New Testament. Both books contain an episode known as the Quo Vadis (Where are you going). The setting is in Rome at the time of the hated emperor and tyrant, Nero. In the Acts of Peter we see Peter hurrying out of Rome on the Appian Way in an attempt to avoid the Neronian horrors, when he meets Jesus coming toward him. Peter asks, “Where are you going, Lord – Quo vadis, Domine?” Jesus answers, “I am going into the city to be crucified again.”
The apocryphal literature shifts the location of the Passion from Jerusalem to Rome. We learn from the Lives of the Saints that the relics of those saints who were martyred in Asia Minor, Egypt and elsewhere were brought to Rome for final burial in the third and fourth centuries.
With the Temple destroyed, with the city of Jerusalem by 135AD renamed Aelia Capitolina, and with Jews banned from entering Jerusalem, Jews and Jewish Christians began praying fervently for the fall of Rome. The demise of Rome acquired religious significance-particularly with a view to the advent of the Messiah. Christians believed that those who had died defending their faith against Roman heathenism would the first to rise in the Resurrection. This conviction placed an obligation on the living to bury the dead in the most favorable site to await the Coming.
The Church at Rome then found itself the custodian of catacombs that not only had to serve the small Christian population of Rome, but also had to receive relics of the faithful from throughout the Empire.
Kennedy, Charles A. “Were Christians Buried in Roman Catacombs to Await the Second Coming?”, Biblical Archaeology Review 6.3 (May/Jun 1980): 16-31
After reading all this information let’s go back to Via Appia Antica and let’s visit the little church Quo Vadis Domine?
On the left we see Saint Peter:
On the right we see Jesus:
In the middle of the floor between the two painting we find Jesus’ footprints:
The two footprints on a marble slab at the center of the church (copy of a relief conserved in the nearby Basilica of San Sebastiano) are said to have been miraculously left by Jesus.
On both sides of the altar – two scenes of crucifixion:
Henryk Sienkiewicz is the author of the famous novel “Quo Vadis?”
And now the Polish song: Quo Vadis Domine? Enjoy!!