The 11 Pontifical Academies of the Vatican held their 25th Public Session on Tuesday at Rome’s Palazzo della Cancelleria.
This year’s edition, organized by the Pontifical Roman Academy of Archaeology and the Pontifical Academy Cultorum Martyrum, was dedicated to the figure of the great Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi on the occasion of 200 years of his birth.
The 19th-century archaeologist was famous for rediscovering the early Christian catacombs.
Example of Giovanni Battista de Rossi
“Giovanni Battista de Rossi is considered the founder of modern Christian archaeology. In fact, his contemporary Theodor Mommsen said that he ‘had elevated this discipline from a mere pastime of scholars to a true historical science’,” Pope Francis said in a message to the academicians gathered at the meeting.
“His example deserves to be re-proposed in order to promote and develop the study of Christian archaeology, not only in specialized fields but also in universities and institutes where theology and the history of Christianity are taught,” added the Pope.
He sent his greetings in a letter addressed to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and of the Coordination Council between Pontifical Academies.
In the letter that Cardinal Ravasi read at the gathering, Pope Francis announced that this year he “is pleased to award the Gold Medal of the Pontificate to the research “The Machaerus Archaeological Excavations“, directed by Professor Gyözö Vörös, member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, whose results are collected in three monumental volumes concerning the Jordanian citadel overlooking the Dead Sea”.
“As a sign of encouragement for the archaeological studies on the early Christian monuments,” the Pope said he was awarding the Silver Medal of the Pontificate jointly to Dr. Domenico Benoci, for the thesis on “The Christian inscriptions of Area I of San Callisto“, and to Dr. Gabriele Castiglia, for the monograph “Christian Topography of Central-Southern Tuscany“.
Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin honoured the 3 scholars with the Pontifical Academies Prizes on behalf of the Holy Father.
The Popes and de Rossi
In his letter, Pope Francis recalled how various pontiffs admired and encouraged de Rossi’s efforts.
Pope Pius IX, established the Commission of Sacred Archaeology in 1852 for greater protection, supervision and scientific excavation of the cemeteries and ancient Christian buildings of Rome and its suburbs.
Pope Leo XIII had wanted the Roman archeologist as a guest at the papal summer palace of Castel Gandolfo in the last period of his life.
The Pope’s support for de Rossi also led the Holy See to purchase lands overlooking the most important catacombs, so as to preserve the fundamental testimonies of early Christianity, to which the archeologist devoted his studies and excavations.
Reliving the faith of early Christians
Because of the efforts of de Rossi in the mid 19th century, the most ancient cemetery complex of St. Callistus came to light, and the crypt of the Popes, from the third century, and that of Saint Cecilia were identified. The effort brought specialists and the faithful closer to the archaeological evidence and, through them, to the firm and fervent faith of those ancient Christian communities.
“The archaeologist discovered many tombs of Roman martyrs and, together with collaborators and young scholars, revived their veneration,” said the Pope. “The tombs of the martyrs and their memories represent the privileged centres of interest of the great Roman archaeologist, who laid the foundations of a lively discipline ready to grasp the message coming from the Christian catacombs, understood as places of temporary rest while waiting for the resurrection.”
The Pope added that de Rossi “brought to light the deep significance of those underground necropolises where fraternity and equality reigned between all members of the Church.”
Passion and commitment
Pope Francis expressed admiration for de Rossi’s extraordinary commitment, passion, and vocation to develop the scientific discipline in Christian archaeology, in order to help discover and make better known the life of the first Christian communities of Rome, through all possible sources.
Pope Francis concluded by wishing all the academicians and the participants in the 25th Public Session to an ever more fruitful commitment to promoting Christian humanism.