Pope Francis celebrated Mass Saturday for the souls of the dead in Rome’s Catacombs of Priscilla, saying the place of a Christian is in the safety of the hands of God, whatever the outside circumstances might be.
“The souls of the just are in the hands of God, the hands of God, which are wounded…” he said Nov. 2.
“The place of the Christian,” he continued, “is in the intercession of Jesus before the Father. In the hands of God. And we are safe. Whatever happens, happens – it is the cross. In this identity we are blessed. If they persecute us, if they say anything against us, if we are in the hands of God, [which are] wounded by love, we are safe. This is our place.”
“Where am I most safe? In the hands of God or with other things, other securities?” he asked.
The Catacombs of Priscilla were one of the prominent catacombs of the early Church in Rome and is referred to in early Christian texts as “regina catacumbarum,” meaning “the queen of the catacombs” because of the many martyrs who were buried there.
The catacombs were lost for several hundred years, after the entrances were blocked to keep out thieves. They were rediscovered in the 16th-century, though many of the remains of the martyrs were subsequently removed.
In his homily at Mass, Pope Francis said the martyrs of the Church in the first centuries, those who came to the catacombs to celebrate the Eucharist in safety, many of whom were killed for the faith, have the same identity as the many Christians who are persecuted around the world today.
“Also today there are Christians who are persecuted, more than in the first centuries, more,” he said.
He told the story of an Albanian religious sister who was imprisoned in a re-education camp during Communism, who would baptize children in secret, because the priests were forbidden from giving sacraments. There were no cups, so the sister used a shoe with river water to baptize the children, he said.
In his homily, Pope Francis also reflected on the beatitudes as the identity of a Christian. “There is no other [identity],” he said. “If you do this, if you live like this, you are a Christian.”
Belonging to a Catholic movement or group is valid too, he said, but “your identity card” is the beatitudes. “If you do not have this, movements, memberships serve no purpose.”
“Either you live like this or you are not a Christian,” he said, adding that “without this, there is no identity. there is a pretense of being a Christian, but no identity.”
The pope noted that it was his first time ever visiting the catacombs. After Mass, upon returning to the Vatican, he visited the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica to spend a moment in prayer for the souls of the deceased popes who are buried there.
It had recently been tradition for popes to say Mass for All Souls’ Day at Rome’s Campo Verano cemetery, founded in the 19th century.
Pope Francis did the same for the first three years of his pontificate, though in 2016 he chose to say the All Souls' Day Mass at Rome's Prima Porta Cemetery instead.
In 2017, he celebrated the feast day Mass in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno, an Italian cemetery for American personnel killed in World War II.
Dedicated in 1956, the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery covers 77 acres, with 7,860 servicemen buried there. A chapel on the grounds holds the names of an additional 3,095 servicemen who went missing in action.
Last year, the pope said Mass in a cemetery for deceased children and unborn babies called the “Garden of Angels,” located in the Laurentino Cemetery on the outskirts of Rome.