Thursday, June 17, 2010
ON THE BONES OF ST. PETER: Part 1
(This picture was taken in June 2007 on our second family trip to Rome)
However, ten years ago this month I made my first trip to that city. I was single (that state of being was soon to end....a story for another day) and traveled alone, though a friend was in Rome that same week.
And just a few days from now, my brother-in-law John and his son Callum will take their first trip to Rome. In honor of all these events, I am posting something I wrote shortly after my first trip. This story is in large part why Rome is my favorite place on earth.
Since it is long I will post it in two parts.
In the summer of 2000, the great year of Jubilee, I had the privilege of taking a pilgrimage to Rome. Before I left, many more experienced pilgrims gave me their advice for my trip. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the best advice I received was to “go on the Scavi tour”.
At first, I didn’t know what a Scavi tour was. My friend graciously informed me that it was a tour of the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica and then gave me the e-mail address for that office. I e-mailed and received my reservation for a tour. This was the extent of my preparation for what would be the highlight of my pilgrimage.
On that day, my friend and I arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica and proceeded to walk up to the Swiss Guards, as we were told. They stopped us with a raised hand and a stern look. I merely uttered the words: “Scavi Tour” and we were beckoned forward and directed to a small office where we waited for our guide and the rest of our group.
The guide was a young American priest, Fr. Roger Landry, who was just three days away from the first anniversary of his ordination. This would be one of the last tours he would give for a long time, since he was returning to the states.
The tour began and Fr. Roger set the stage. We were to imagine ourselves as first century Christians. He pointed his finger to a barely noticeable square of concrete in the center of the asphalt driveway on which we were standing. Father told us that this square marked the spot where the ancient obelisk was located in the center of the circus. He emphasized that this was the location of martyrdom for many of the early Christians. In fact, one very famous Christian was crucified upside down there a little less than 2000 years ago. Due to this person’s fame among Christians, a Roman guard saved his body from cremation and secretly buried it on Vatican Hill, the spot on which now sits St. Peter’s Basilica. I knew when I heard that the mysterious martyr had been crucified upside down that Fr. Roger was referring to St. Peter, the first pope. This was my first clue that the tour had anything to do with this famous early Christian.
Fr. Roger led our group through a hallway and into a small rock-walled room. It felt much like a museum in this room. There were several glass boxes with models of different buildings. We gathered around one such glass box and Father continued the story. St. Peter’s gravesite became an instant pilgrimage site and was secretly visited by many Christians who risked their lives to be near him. They would bring pieces of cloth to touch to his grave and bring back to their sick relatives. These were some of the first relics.
Eventually, Father explained, these Christians began to secretly bury their dead in the abandoned Roman graves of this graveyard in an effort to lay their loved ones close to St. Peter. At one point, Peter’s grave was disguised as a Roman grave with a small monument that usually indicated a military hero. Fr. Roger showed us a detailed model of this small monument.
The story says that when Christianity was legalized, Constantine built a large monument on the spot. Later the Basilica, which is the mother church of the worldwide Catholic Church, would be built. Apparently, this story of St. Peter’s bones had been passed on from generation to generation, but not since the third century had anyone actually seen the bones. I wondered what was the likelihood of Peter’s bones actually being under the basilica. Then Father Roger caught my attention with the next key to the story.
In 1939, while burying Pope Pius XI in the crypt under St. Peter’s, Vatican officials uncovered an ancient Roman wall. This was all the impetus they needed to begin excavations and see if they could possibly discover the bones of St. Peter somewhere under the Basilica.
Now I was fascinated. The story had become a great mystery since I had no idea that there had been any attempt to uncover the actual whereabouts of Peter’s bones. I couldn’t help but think of the incredible sign given by Christ Himself, if those bones were actually under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. When Christ said “On this rock I will build my Church”, maybe He meant it both figuratively and physically!
My attention went back to Fr. Roger. He was explaining about the publicity surrounding these great archeological possibilities. Though the search for Peter’s bones was originally widely publicized, during World War II there was some fear of Hitler attempting to steal the bones-- if they were found. So, Pope Pius XII decided to take his project underground, so to speak. He staged a mock closing of the excavations, and secretly continued them throughout the war.
I followed Fr. Roger down dusty hallways with many twists and turns. The air was humid and an occasional rope blocked off an area where archeologists were still working on restoring a tomb. As I said above, this Roman graveyard had been slowly taken over by Christians some time in those early centuries. There were small rooms in which we could see ancient urns and early Christian mosaics intermingled with the Roman symbols. Fr. Roger commented on the fact that certain hallways that were open last week, were closed this week, and visa versa. All of these facts contributed to the excitement that was building in my chest. I felt as if I were there in the 1940’s, digging with archeologists and wondering if St. Peter’s bones would be found.
Father stopped our group in certain spots to continue the story. I stood as close as possible because I wanted to hear every word. The suspense kept building and I am sure that my mouth gaped open as my heart jumped to my throat.
He told us that eventually, the archeologists uncovered what looked like an ancient Roman monument and it was located directly beneath the altar of St. Peter’s, just as the tradition told them it would be. Reminding us of the model we saw at the beginning of our tour, he showed us that beyond a roped off pathway, through a small hole on the wall, we could see parts of that monument. I could see the edge of a small column.
He told us that some time in the forties, bones were found in the center of that monument, just where they should be. Excitement filled the little room in which we stood, much as it must have filled that same room some sixty years earlier. The Vatican quickly found a world-renowned doctor to test the bones and see if indeed they belonged to a first century man who died in his 60’s, as Peter would have. However, the doctor needed time to clear his schedule and set aside the many months it would take.
Pope Pius XII believed the bones of St. Peter had been found and had brought some small fragments to his chamber in a reliquary. He and all the archeologists and the few Vatican officials in on the search awaited the doctor's word. Then, after years of waiting, the report was given:
Were these the bones of St. Peter?
Think you know the rest of the story?
Stay tuned to find out....same blog-time, same blog-channel......