Imagine celebrating mass in the 1st century in secret in a middle-class apartment in the same building as upper class soldiers worshiping the Persian soldier God Mithros. Those very apartments where Saint Clement lived and celebrated mass with early Christians exist today beneath both a 4th century and a 12th century basilica, the Basilica of San Clemente.
When you step below into these ancient homes today, they don’t seem like much. You’re greeted by the strong musty smell of stone and a darkness only lit by artificial lights. These rooms are pretty barren as well, simply brick walls and floors, because early Christians celebrated in their own homes with whatever they had available to them, in stark contrast to the preserved altar to Mithros uncovered in the same apartment. Though we don’t know which apartment belonged to Saint Clement, they are all an amazing glimpse into what it must have been like to be an early Christian.
Our tour guide, Robert, told us that “Romans build things to last,” and in the case of the Basilica of San Clemente, the Romans simply raised the street level and filled the 1st century apartments with cement in order to build a basilica in the 4th century. A further example of this mentality in the 4th century basilica is the pieces of ornate marble flooring which were recycled, even from funeral monuments. The most noticeable parts of this structure were beautiful frescos added in the 9th century. The frescos were painted onto slabs originally added in order to support the basilica after an earthquake. They depict stories of Saint Clement and various miracles he performed to convey a message to a largely illiterate audience.
Despite being around for 2000 years, the Basilica of San Clemente is still used for daily mass, continuing the strong tradition of the Church coming together to pray in that sacred space. – Rebecca Patterson