We wound through cobble stone streets into piazza after piazza. We ducked into glorious church after glorious church wallpapered in masterpieces and lined with artifacts, bones and the occasional saintly arm.
After miles of walking, our feet felt like we were wearing the latest in hot skillets instead of sandles, but we pushed on. Past the magnificence of the Colosseum, past the ruined Forum, past the other tourists, past the gypsys, nuns and beggars.
We were going to find this “Mamertino” place I had promised to visit if it were the last act of Katie Walker in Rome. Amen.
And so we three American girls finally stumbled up a side street off the Via dei Fori Imperiali and stared at our long sought-after Mamertine Prison, otherwise known as San Pietro in Carcere, otherwise known as San Giuseppe dei Falegnami.
The prison is almost as old as the city, dating to 640 BC. In the dim upper chamber, itself a story underground, an altar and flaking frescoes adorn uneven stone walls. There is a perfectly round hole in the floor and our priest friend tells us this hole was the only air source, the only light source and the only way in or out of the lower chamber, known as the Tullianum, after its builder Servius Tullius.
We descended down a winding staircase, a “new” addition, and were surrounded by one of the most feared prisons of ancient Rome.
The Tullianum was a place of detention and execution for Rome’s most despicable criminals. One ancient commentator, describing the hole, said that “neglect, darkness and stench make it hideous and fearsome to behold.”
Standing down there 2000 years later, it was easy to believe.
It was here that St. Peter and St. Paul were held for months before their executions. Finding the Christians easy scapegoats for the burning of Rome, Nero ordered the leaders rounded up and thrown in the Tullianum. And so, in this cramped, underground hellhole Saints Peter and Paul were chained together for months.
Standing there in that now peaceful, quiet hole my imagination took a 2000 year leap backwards. I was surrounded by the suffocating stench of refuse, vomit and sin. I recoiled from the oppressive despair of 47 men who knew the eye-for-an-eye justice of their certain fates. I saw how madness could ooze into that place as easily as the sewer water that regularly flooded the room from the main Roman septic line just beyond that wall.
I don’t know what went on in those days dragging into months that St. Peter and St. Paul were down there. What was said to fellow prisoners. What was thought, heard and seen.
What we do know is that instead of losing their minds, as any normal person would, these two great men were so filled with the Holy Spirit and zeal for Our Lord that they baptized their fellow 47 prisoners, ancient Rome’s most feared criminals, and their Roman jailers, who we now venerate as the martyred Saints Processus and Martinianus.
I found myself crying. After days of looking on the glories of the Church, the basilicas, the masterpieces, the papal insignias that stamp almost every block of Rome, it was the Tullianum that, for me, struck my heart as the glory of the Church, the power of the Resurrection, the glorious contradiction of Catholicism.
C. S. Lewis said he believed because Christianity was a religion you couldn’t have guessed.
Who could have guessed that Rome’s deepest hellhole would be transformed into a sanctuary, that her most hardened criminals would be turned into glorious martyrs truly liberated in Christ?
Here is where St. Peter and St. Paul, notorious for their incompatible temperaments, were to be chained to the same post for months, and yet still they brought peace and the love of Christ with them. They brought Jesus.
Blessed be the day those apostolic convicts were thrown in the Mamertine.
My musings were interrupted by the comment of one of the mothers standing near me.
“When my girls don’t get along, I make them sit on the couch and hold hands too.”
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