Renewing Missionary Commitment with the Pact of the Catacombs


Catacombs, a hidden treasure of faith

The history of the Catacombs in Rome demonstrates how the first generations of Christians, as a marginalized and oppressed group of their time, had to find places outside the city to bury their dead; among them were many of their martyrs. The closeness to the martyrs helped the Christians in nourishing their faith, being faithful in time of persecutions and growing in their commitment to follow the Lord. The catacombs therefore became a witness of the humble and poor stage of the Church, of the Church of the simple and marginalized people, a Church that knows suffering, a poor Church that serves the poor.

The call back to the spirit of the Catacombs can be the way for the Church to remain faithful to its Master and to the Gospel. In his homily during the Mass at the catacombs of Domitilla on September 12, 1965, before reconvening for the last section of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI said, “The Lord gives us a lesson of simplicity in our wanting and tasting, the doctrine of poverty in the moral and religious sense of this weighty and serious evangelical word. This doctrine finds its school, its Chair, its affirmation here in the catacombs”.

The Pact of the Catacombs, a forgotten document

Around two months after the historic visit of Paul VI to the Domitilla Catacombs, on the 16th of November 1965, forty bishops from all over the world, celebrated the Eucharist and signed a document that expressed their personal commitments as bishops to the ideals of the Council. It was given the suggestive title of the Pact of the Catacombs. The complete text is transcribed in the Chronicles of Vatican II by the Franciscan bishop Boaventura Kloppenburg. He titled the document: Pact of the Servant and Poor Church.

In thirteen points the bishops committed themselves to a simple life, to live according to “the ordinary manner of their people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters”, to renounce privileges, titles and symbols of power and distance, to entrust the administration of the temporal goods of their dioceses to competent lay people. Although in the last paragraph of the Pact the bishops committed themselves to bring their resolution to the attention of their clergy and faithful in their dioceses, the fact is that the Pact has not been widely propagated. Though it was not hidden, it was forgotten. As a document the Pact is forgotten, but as a source of inspiration it has always been alive, at least for some of the signing bishops. Bishops like Helder Camara, Luigi Betazzi, and Enrico Angelleli Carletti took concrete steps to bring the Church closer to the world of the poor and marginalized. They did not talk much about the document they signed, but manifested its content in the way they lived and served.

Celebrating 50th anniversary of the Pact of the Catacombs

In January 2009 we officially started our mission at the Catacombs. However, it was only in the last years we gradually came to know something about the Pact as information collected from confreres and employees came to the fore. Some notable material was provided by the Brazilian theologian José Oscar Beozzo. We decided to use the 50th anniversary of the Pact of the Catacombs as a platform to promote the Pact and unveil its content as a source of inspiration for the life and mission of the Church today. In the first volume of In Word and Deed 2013, for the first time, we brought to the attention of the whole Society the Pact of the Catacombs, presenting it as one of the four examples which carry the spirit of the Second Vatican Council .Since then a series of activities have been planned and are taking place. Why do we give so much attention to the Pact of Catacombs by organizing so many activities? We want to help people who come to the Catacombs to get in touch with the testimony of the first generations of Christians and be inspired to give witness to their faith as Christians today. Now, with the Pact of the Catacombs we find another source of inspiration to truly live as Christians. This same inspiration belongs to the whole Church and needs to be made known to all Christians.

What was signed as a resolution of the bishops five decades ago is still valid for all the followers of Jesus who are called to be in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. The simplicity of life and the transparency of structures underlined by the bishops are still ways to be credible for all those who are involved in the evangelizing task of the Church today. In the midst of the challenges the worldwide society is facing today with regards to refugees and migrants, the conflicts between religions and ethnic groups, the increasing unemployment among the young generation, corruption perpetuated by the politically powerful and exploitation of nature, it is imperative that the task of evangelization takes the way of solidarity, sharing resources with the needy and defending the rights of the weak.

A poor Church serving the poor, however idealistic and utopian it might sound, remains the genuine call of the gospel to all of us. This call is not reserved to the signing bishops. Also within our own Society we have confreres taking initiatives to be close to the poor, sharing their lives with those at the margins. Our confreres are working in remote places, lacking many comforts and oftentimes not wanted by others, providing educational facilities, empowering people by building up cooperatives, etc. In the urban contexts our confreres open their hearts and houses to help the migrants and refugees or to accompany people with HIV/AIDS. In recent years the issue of environment related to the mining industries and the fight against human trafficking became major concerns of many people we serve and therefore caught the attention of the members of our Society to act upon these issues.

To further renew our missionary commitment in light of the Pact of the Catacombs, we want to propose the following three points. Our first proposal is to listen to the prophetic voice of the poor. With their resolutions the bishops did not only underline the importance of their going to the poor and marginalized, but also at the same time the necessity to take seriously the poor as evangelizers. The poor have a mission, a message to share with others. They are not the silent receptors of our proclamation of the good news and objects of our charitable works. Mission is not only the move from the center to the margins, but also from the margins to the center, as stated by the World Council of Churches in 2012. Where are the poor, the last ones, in our life and mission? We reiterate the question we often raise at different occasions: “How can we give the poor the opportunity to be formators for our young confreres?”

Second is to learn that simple external appearances are an expression of the simplicity of the spirit. The bishops promised to adjust their life to how the ordinary people live in terms of housing, food, and means of transport. They were also willing to renounce symbols and titles that anchor privileges and superiority. How important these external aspects are, but they can only serve the evangelizing task of the Church if they come from simplicity of the heart and spirit. Many of us are from, or working in, cultures that highly appreciate religious and even more so priests. However, in a mission that serves God’s people we need to be aware not to misuse the appreciation of the people for our own benefits, enjoying the position to the point of excusing ourselves from being responsible and accountable for what we are thinking, saying and doing.

Third is to accept the need to have the spirit and skills of collaboration. The bishops were very much aware of the urgency and necessity to collaborate with other bishops as well with their clergy, the religious, lay people and all people of good will. Oftentimes we experience collaboration as a hindrance for the efficiency in our work. A one man decision is much easier to make and to implement. However, such decisions are bound to depend on that one person. Mission is not only about effectiveness in implementing projects but also educating, forming and empowering others to actively participate. Collaboration, even if it involves much patience, understanding and compromise, enables others to feel part of the whole mission with their responsibility invested in it.

Fifty years ago the Pact of the Catacombs was drafted. Not only are we as a Society proud of the fact that the place where this historic pact was signed is under our care. We feel blessed that we are instruments to announce to the Church that the spirit of the Pact remains valid for all of us today. As Divine Word Missionaries we continue to embrace our call to put the last first and allow ourselves to be guided by the spirit of the Pact of the Catacombs. Individually and as communities we read and reflect how the Pact continues to be a source of inspiration in our mission.


Pact of the Catcombs

We, bishops assembled in the Second Vatican Council, are conscious of the deficiencies of our lifestyle in terms of evangelical poverty. Motivated by one another in an initiative in which each of us has tried avoid ambition and presumption, we unite with all our brothers in the episcopacy and rely above all on the grace and strength of Our Lord Jesus Christ and on the prayer of the faithful and the priests in our respective dioceses. Placing ourselves in thought and in prayer before the Trinity, the Church of Christ, and all the priests and faithful of our dioceses, with humility and awareness of our weakness, but also with all the determination and all the strength that God desires to grant us by his grace, we commit ourselves to the following:

• We will try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.

• We renounce forever the appearance and the substance of wealth, especially in clothing (rich vestments, loud colors) and symbols made of precious metals (these signs should certainly be evangelical).

• We will not possess in our own names any properties or other goods, nor will we have bank accounts or the like. If it is necessary to possess something, we will place everything in the name of the diocese or of social or charitable works.

• As far as possible we will entrust the financial and material running of our diocese to a commission of competent lay persons who are aware of their apostolic role, so that we can be less administrators and more pastors and apostles.

• We do not want to be addressed verbally or in writing with names and titles that express prominence and power (such as Eminence, Excellency, Lordship). We prefer to be called by the evangelical name of “Father.”

• In our communications and social relations we will avoid everything that may appear as a concession of privilege, prominence, or even preference to the wealthy and the powerful (for example, in religious services or by way of banquet invitations offered or accepted).

• Likewise we will avoid favoring or fostering the vanity of anyone at the moment of seeking or acknowledging aid or for any other reason. We will invite our faithful to consider their donations as a normal way of participating in worship, in the apostolate, and in social action.

• We will give whatever is needed in terms of our time, our reflection, our heart, our means, etc., to the apostolic and pastoral service of workers and labor groups and to those who are economically weak and disadvantaged, without allowing that to detract from the welfare of other persons or groups of the diocese. We will support lay people, religious, deacons, and priests whom the Lord calls to evangelize the poor and the workers by sharing their lives and their labors.

• Conscious of the requirements of justice and charity and of their mutual relatedness, we will seek to transform our works of welfare into social works based on charity and justice, so that they take all persons into account, as a humble service to the responsible public agencies.

• We will do everything possible so that those responsible for our governments and our public services establish and enforce the laws, social structures, and institutions that are necessary for justice, equality, and the integral, harmonious development of the whole person and of all persons, and thus for the advent of a new social order, worthy of the children of God.

• Since the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme evangelical realization in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery, we commit ourselves: a) to support as far as possible the most urgent projects of the episcopacies of the poor nations; and b) to request jointly, at the level of international organisms, the adoption of economic and cultural structures which, instead of producing poor nations in an ever richer world, make it possible for the poor majorities to free themselves from their wretchedness. We will do all this even as we bear witness to the gospel, after the example of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations.

• We commit ourselves to sharing our lives in pastoral charity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, priests, religious, and laity, so that our ministry constitutes a true service. Accordingly, we will make an effort to “review our lives” with them; we will seek collaborators in ministry so that we can be animators according to the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world; we will try be make ourselves as humanly present and welcoming as possible; and we will show ourselves to be open to all, no matter what their beliefs.

• When we return to our dioceses, we will make these resolutions known to our diocesan priests and ask them to assist us with their comprehension, their collaboration, and their prayers. May God help us to be faithful.