Saturday, June 9, 2012
The Bones of St. Peter: In Which I am Still Telling the Same Story
And for the finish...are you still listening Michelle?
(FYI: My niece spent the last few days telling my kids stories so it is only fair that she gets one too!)
Rome , June 2007. Looking out onto St. Peter's Square. Look how young those kids are!!!!!
And now for the rest of the story.....
Then, after years of waiting, the report was given: the bones were definitely from the first century and they were the bones of two different men and one woman. Both men, however, died in their early thirties. The bones could not possibly belong to St. Peter. It seemed as if, somewhere along those 2000 years, Peter’s bones had been lost. I was crushed!
But, Father continued his story. The excavations had not stopped when the bones had been found in the monument. One of the scientists still working on the excavations was a young female doctor of ancient Greek who had been called in to decipher the writings on the retaining wall built against the ancient Roman monument. Working from a picture, she found the name Peter written in Greek and a picture of what looked like keys. The woman asked to see the real wall and was granted a visit to the excavations. A security guard took her to the spot under St. Peter’s and stood by, holding a lantern, while she looked. The lady doctor looked at the wall and inside the hole near where the writing was found. At one point she said, under her breath, “I wish I could see what was in here.” The guard said proudly, “You can.”
Father Landry explained that it just so happened that the guard was one of two men present when the items in the hole were discovered years earlier. At the time of the discovery, the original set of bones was being tested, and excavations were continuing in surrounding areas. However, a water main broke and caused all officials to leave the site of the wall immediately, leaving the guard and one official who noticed the contents of the hole. Inside the wall were some bones and a slab of rock, which the official and the guard carefully boxed and stored.
The guard recounted the story and took the doctor to the warehouse, where they tracked down the box, containing bones and a slab of rock. Upon looking at the rock, the doctor immediately saw the name Peter in Greek. Closer inspection revealed the phrase: Peter is here.
Our little tour group stood in silence. The damp, musty walls surrounded us, holding on to their secrets. Father continued the story. In the meantime, Pope Pius XII had died and Pope Paul VI was given the responsibility to continue the search. After some discussion and deliberation, it was decided to call the doctor who had tested the first set of bones. Again, they had to wait for him to be free, but eventually the bones were tested. Father paused while I held my breath. Were the bones really those of St. Peter? I knew that it wouldn’t shake my faith if they weren’t. I believed that Peter was martyred and buried there and that the basilica was built on his grave. However, if the bones were really found under the altar of St. Peter’s, my trust in tradition (not Tradition) would be strengthened.
Father Landry continued: The doctor’s report came back to the Vatican. The bones found in the retaining wall indeed dated to the first century and were all from one man, who died in his 60’s. In addition, the bones had purple die in them, indicating that they had been wrapped in very expensive royal cloth usually used to wrap the bodies of kings or emperors. If the body had been wrapped, the die would not have sunk into the bones, but would have disintegrated with the cloth and the flesh. It must have been the bones themselves that were wrapped, perhaps by Constantine as he prepared to build his large monument on the site.
My heart, which was at that point still in my throat, began to beat even harder as I realized that I was at that point standing just a few feet away from the bones of St. Peter. As Father had told us early in our tour, we were like those first century Christians who secretly visited the Roman grave yard on Vatican Hill, just to be near the great Peter.
In 1964, Pope Paul VI announced that the bones of St. Peter had been discovered. It was his job to decide whether the relics should be put on display for the veneration of the faithful, or left in their original spot—in the wall, under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pope decided that when Christ said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt. 16:18), He meant that spiritually (since the Vicar of Christ is the foundation on which the Church stands) AND he meant it physically—the Mother Church of all Churches stands on the bones of St. Peter himself. And there, to this day, those bones remain.
The Basilica of Peter is not just a beautiful building, though it is very definitely beautiful. It is, in fact, a visible, tangible symbol intended by God to point us to the deeper realities of our Faith. Christ founded His Church on the institution of the Papacy, beginning with the man Peter. That institution stands in tact, having been protected by the Holy Spirit for two millennia, as a means of protecting and passing on Divine Revelation. And the building built on Peter’s bones stands as a visible sign of Christ’s intentions for His Church.