The Pact of the Catacombs

On the evening of Nov. 16, 1965, quietly alerted to the event by word-of-mouth, some 40 Roman Catholic bishops made their way to celebrate Mass in an ancient, underground basilica in the Catacombs of Domitilla on the outskirts of the Eternal City.

Both the place and the timing of the liturgy had a profound resonance: The church marked the spot where tradition said two Roman soldiers were executed for converting to Christianity. And beneath the feet of the bishops, and extending through more than 10 miles of tunnels, were the tombs of more than 100,000 Christians from the earliest centuries of the church.

In addition, the Mass was celebrated shortly before the end of the Second Vatican Council, the historic gathering of all the world’s bishops that over three years set the church on the path of reform and an unprecedented engagement with the modern world — launching dialogue with other Christians and other religions, endorsing religious freedom and moving the Mass from Latin to the vernacular, among other things.

But another concern among many of the 2,200 churchmen at Vatican II was to truly make Catholicism a “church of the poor,” as Pope John XXIII put it shortly before convening the council. The bishops who gathered for Mass at the catacombs that November evening were devoted to seeing that commitment become a reality.

So as the liturgy concluded in the dim light of the vaulted fourth-century chamber, each of the prelates came up to the altar and affixed his name to a brief but passionate manifesto that pledged them all to “try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.”

The signatories vowed to renounce personal possessions, fancy vestments and “names and titles that express prominence and power,” and they said they would make advocating for the poor and powerless the focus of their ministry.

In all this, they said, “we will seek collaborators in ministry so that we can be animators according to the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world; we will try to make ourselves as humanly present and welcoming as possible; and we will show ourselves to be open to all, no matter what their beliefs.”

The document would become known as the Pact of the Catacombs, and the signers hoped it would mark a turning point in church history.

Instead, the Pact of the Catacombs disappeared, for all intents and purposes.

It is barely mentioned the extensive histories of Vatican II, and while copies of the text are in circulation, no one knows what happened to the original document. In addition, the exact number and names of the original signers is in dispute, though it is believed that only one still survives: Luigi Bettazzi, nearly 92 years old now, bishop emeritus of the Italian diocese of Ivrea.

With its Dan Brown setting and murky evidence, the pact seemed fated to become another Vatican mystery — an urban legend to those who had heard rumors about it, or at best a curious footnote to church history rather than a new chapter.

Yet in the last few years, as the 50th anniversary of both the Catacombs Pact and Vatican II approached, this remarkable episode has finally begun to emerge from the shadows.

That’s thanks in part to a circle of theologians and historians, especially in Germany, who began talking and writing more publicly about the pact — an effort that will take a major step forward later this month when the Pontifical Urban University, overlooking the Vatican, hosts a daylong seminar on the document’s legacy.

But perhaps nothing has revived and legitimated the Pact of the Catacombs as much as the surprise election, in March 2013, of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — Pope Francis.

While never citing the Catacombs Pact specifically, Francis has evoked its language and principles, telling journalists within days of his election that he wished for a “poor church, for the poor,” and from the start shunning the finery and perks of his office, preferring to live in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the apostolic palace. He stressed that all bishops should also live simply and humbly, and the pontiff has continually exhorted pastors to “have the smell of the sheep,” staying close to those most in need and being welcoming and inclusive at every turn.

“His program is to a high degree what the Catacomb Pact was,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German theologian who is close to the pope, said in an interview earlier this year at his apartment next to the Vatican.

The Pact of the Catacombs “was forgotten,” said Kasper, who mentioned the document in his recent book on the thought and theology of Francis. “But now he (Francis) brings it back.”

For a while, there was even talk in Rome that Francis would travel to the Domitilla Catacombs to mark the anniversary. While that’s apparently not in the cards, “the Catacomb Pact is everywhere now in discussion,” as Kasper put it.

“With Pope Francis, you cannot ignore the Catacomb Pact,” agreed Massimo Faggioli, a professor of church history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “It’s a key to understanding him, so it’s no mystery that it has come back to us today.”

But why did the Pact of the Catacombs disappear in the first place?

In reality, it didn’t, at least for the church in Latin America.

The chief presider at the catacombs Mass 50 years ago was a Belgian bishop, Charles-Marie Himmer, and a number of other progressive Europeans took part as well. But the bulk of the celebrants were Latin American prelates, such as the famous Brazilian archbishop and champion of the poor, Dom Helder Camara, who kept the spirit of the Catacombs Pact alive — as best they could.

The problem was that the social upheavals of 1968, plus the drama of the Cold War against communism and the rise of liberation theology — which stressed the gospel’s priority on the poor but was seen as too close to Marxism by its conservative foes — made a document such as the Catacombs Pact radioactive.

“It had the odor of communism,” said Brother Uwe Heisterhoff, a member of the Society of the Divine Word, the missionary community that is in charge of the Domitilla Catacombs.

Even in Latin America, the pact wasn’t publicized too widely, lest it poison other efforts to promote justice for the poor. Heisterhoff noted that he worked with the indigenous peoples of Bolivia for 15 years but only learned about the Catacombs Pact when he came to Rome to oversee the Domitilla Catacombs four years ago.

“This stuff was a bit dangerous until Francis came along,” said Faggioli.

Indeed, some reports say that up to 500 bishops, mainly Latin Americans, eventually added their names to the pact, and one of them, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, was gunned down by military-backed assassins for speaking out against human rights abuses and on behalf of the poor — in the view of many, for preaching the message of the Catacombs Pact.

Francis, too, seems to have imbibed the spirit of the Catacombs Pact, though there’s no evidence he ever signed it.

As a Jesuit priest and then bishop in Argentina during the turbulent decades of the 1970s and ’80s, Francis became increasingly devoted to the cause of the poor, as did much of the Latin American church. It was no great surprise, then, that this year he pushed ahead with the beatification of Romero, which had been stalled for decades; just last week Francis used remarkably sharp language to denounce those who had “slandered” Romero’s reputation.

Francis was also familiar with the case of his fellow Argentine churchman Bishop Enrique Angelelli, an outspoken advocate for the poor who was killed in 1976 in what appeared to be a traffic accident but which was later shown to be an assassination by the military dictatorship that ruled the country at the time.

Angelelli was also a signer of the Catacombs Pact, and Francis last April approved a process that could lead to sainthood for the slain bishop.

For many in the U.S., on the other hand, the catacombs have chiefly been deployed as a symbol of persecution, and often by conservative apologists who argue that secularizing trends are heralding a return to the days when Christians huddled in the tunnels for fear of the Romans.

Heisterhoff smiles at that notion. “Here in the catacombs, it was not a place to hide,” he explained. “It was a place to pray, not so much a refuge.”

That’s a point Francis himself has made — the Roman authorities knew where the catacombs, and the Christians, were. It was no secret hideaway. The catacombs even grew as a place to bury the dead after the empire legalized Christianity in 313, as believers came to honor and pray for them in the hope of the resurrection.

What the catacombs really represented, Heisterhoff said, was “a church without power,” a church that featured what Francis has praised as a “convincing witness” — a radical vision of simplicity and service that the pope says is needed for today’s church.

So has the Pact of the Catacombs — and the true message of the catacombs themselves — re-emerged for good?

Much may depend on how long Francis, who turns 79 in December, remains pope and can promote his vision of a “church for the poor.”

Moreover, the economic message at the heart of the Catacombs Pact is just as controversial today as it was when it was signed 50 years ago. Capitalism may have won the Cold War over communism, but income inequality and economic injustice remain or are worse than before.

“We cannot absolutize our Western system,” Kasper said in explaining the theme of the Catacombs Pact. “It’s a system that creates so much poverty, that’s not just. The resources of the world belong to everyone. To all mankind. That is what it is saying.”

The text of the pact signed that night reads:

The “Catacombs’ Pact of the Poor and Servant Church”

We, bishops gathered in the Second Vatican Council, made aware of the deficiencies of our lives of poverty according to the Gospel; encouraged by each other; in an initiative in which each one wishes to avoid singularity and presumption; united with all our brothers in the Episcopate; counting above all on the grace and strength of Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the prayers of the faithful and the priests of our respective dioceses; placing ourselves in thought and prayer before the Trinity, before the Church of Christ and before the priests and faithful of our dioceses; humbly conscious of our weakness, but also with all the determination and strength which God wishes to give us as grace, commit ourselves to the following:

1) We will seek to live according to the ordinary manner of our people, regarding habitation, food, means of transport and all which springs from this.

2) We definitively renounce the appearance and reality of riches, especially regarding our manner of dress (rich material, loud colors) and symbols made of precious materials (they should in reality be evangelical signs).

3) We will not possess real estate, goods, bank accounts, etc. in our own names; if it should be necessary to have them, we will place everything in the name of the diocese, or of charitable and social works.

4) Whenever possible, we will entrust the financial and material administration in our dioceses to a commission of competent laity, conscious of their apostolic role, so that we may become less administrators and more pastors and apostles.

5) We refuse to be addressed, orally or in writing, by names or titles which signify prestige and power (Eminence, Excellency, Monsignor…). We prefer to be called by the evangelical title of Father.

6) In our behavior and social relations, we will avoid anything which may seem to confer privileges, priority or any preference for the rich and powerful (such as: banquets, offered or accepted, class distinction during religious services.

7) In the same way, we will avoid the fostering or pampering of the vanity of anyone, in order to seek reward or solicit donations, or for any reason whatsoever. We will invite our faithful to consider their donations as a normal participation in the cult, the apostolate, and social action.

8) We will dedicate whatever is necessary of or time, reflection, heart, means etc. to the apostolic and pastoral service of people and groups of workers and of the economically weak and underdeveloped, without prejudice to the other people and groups in the diocese. We will support those laity, religious, deacons, and priests who the Lord calls to evangelize the poor and the workers, sharing the work and life of laborer’s.

9) Conscious of the demands of justice and charity, and their mutual relationship, we will seek to transform essential activities into social works based on justice and charity, which take into account all that this requires, as a humble service of the competent public organs.

10) We will do our utmost so that those responsible for our government and for our public services make, and put into practice, laws, structures and social institutions required by justice and charity, equality and the harmonic and holistic development of all men and women, and by this means bring about the advent of another social order, worthy of the sons and daughters of mankind and of God.

11) Believing the collegiality of the bishops to be of the utmost evangelical importance in facing the burden of human masses, in a state of physical, cultural and moral misery – two-thirds of humanity – we commit ourselves:

– to participate, according to our means, in the urgent investments of the episcopates of poor nations;

– to demand that the plans of international organizations, but witnessing to the Gospel, as Pope Paul VI did in the UNO, adopt economic and cultural structures which no longer manufacture proletarian nations in an ever richer world, but which will permit the poor masses to overcome their misery.

12) We commit ourselves to share, in pastoral charity, our lives with our brothers and sisters in Christ, priests, religious and laity, so that our ministry constitute a true service; so,

– we will really try to “revise our lives” with them;

– We will find collaborators who will be more animators according to the Spirit, rather than according to the chiefs of this world;

- we will seek to be more humanly present, more welcoming…;

– we will show ourselves to be open to all, whatever their religion.

13) On returning to our respective dioceses, we will make this resolution known to our people, asking them to help us by their understanding, collaboration, and prayers.



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