Catholicism: Derived from Paganism?

Today I had the chance to visit the Catacombs of Priscilla in the city of Rome, where, for over 1,700 years, the Catholic faith has been preserved both in the actual bones of the early martyrs and the pious devotions of the faithful. After walking through the labyrinth of underground corridors, which amount to 8 miles total, the group of seminarians I was with (along with a priest of our college) was able to celebrate Mass directly above the tombs of two famous martyrs: Sts. Felix and Philip. This opportunity gave me the idea to write a little about the faith of the early Christians, and to explore the continuity of the faith from those first days until now. One thing that really struck me about the catacombs were the various expressions of religious art, and the depictions of God the Father, Jesus, Mary and the Eucharist. For this first post, I'll write a bit about the fresco painting you see above, which is located at the Catacombs of Priscilla.

It seems like a lot of people today have really lost touch with the fact that the Christian faith didn't just pop out of nothingness -- there was no magical book of practicalities and rules that descended to earth when Jesus ascended into heaven. Sure, the foremost of Christian books is the Bible, but this is the fruit of many years of intense labor and much Tradition. Even the Gospels we currently recognize as part of the biblical canon -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- were not always known as such. Undoubtably, there was a time in the early days of the Church when the faithful had no real guidance regarding theology other than the teaching which had been passed down from the Apostles, and the example and witness of the holy martyrs, who gave their very lives for that faith.

During this period, while the tenets of the Catholic faith were still being established, the influence of secular (pagan) culture played a major role in the formation of ideas, for better and for worse. The picture above is an example of this influence. In this fresco (a type of painting applied "fresh" to the plaster underneath), one can see seven people seated at a table. The man on the far left is depicted as a presbyter, or priest, who has the responsiblity of breaking and distributing the bread to the other guests. Also on the table with the bread are wine and fish. Certainly, it is easy for a Catholic to see the Eucharistic reference here: the priest consecrates the bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ, and distributes them to the faithful at Mass; the image seems to come directly from the Last Supper, and is likewise depicted. However, we need to remember that the popular artistic conception of the Last Supper was not formulated until the Renaissance period, and this fresco dates back to around the year 200 AD.

Real significance lies in the fact that, upon the anniversary of one's death, family members of deceased pagan men and women would attend to the grave of the dead and hold a dinner in their honor. This typically consisted of telling stories about the dead person's life, and even sharing some portion of the food and wine (libations) with the deceased through special holes in the ground. It is no coincidence that the format of this pagan festival was utilized in this depiction of the Christian liturgy -- the liturgy arose from among the ranks of the people; even the word "liturgy," in Greek, means "the work of the people." While the Christians did not intend the same meaning as the pagans, they saw the symbolism as an opportune way to manifest the beliefs they held about their faith in Jesus Christ. Through the celebration of the Eucharist, Christians remembered the saving power of the Resurrection, and it was thus an image commonly placed over the tombs of the beloved deceased members of their community.