Peter Is Here
6/1/2019by Inés San Martín
The bones of St. Peter discovered under the Vatican draw pilgrims to the bedrock of the Church
At the center of St. Peter’s Basilica stands the high altar and the towering bronze canopy sculpted by Bernini. Hundreds of feet overhead, on Michelangelo’s dome, we read in 2-meter high black letters on a gold background: TU ES PETRUS … (You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church). These words from Matthew 16:18 are more than just a metaphor; about 7 meters directly underfoot is the tomb of St. Peter himself.
Catholic tradition had long held that the basilica was built over the burial site of the first pope, but it was not until the 1940s that the tomb was finally located by archaeologists. Excavations, carried out in secret under the direction of Pope Pius XII, unearthed a necropolis — an ancient pagan burial ground that also included graves of early Christians. Among the discoveries were the bones of a man believed to be St. Peter.
According to Dr. Pietro Zander, the chief archaeologist of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the institution responsible for the conservation of the basilica, “There is no doubt. What you encounter at the end of the hour-long tour through the ‘city of the dead’ that lies underneath St. Peter’s Basilica is the tomb of the apostle.”
Trips down to see the tomb on the “Scavi tour,” named for the Italian term for “excavations,” are among the hottest tickets in Rome, with some 300 people entering each day. However, the necropolis is no theme park attraction. It is the hallowed burial place of first-century Christians killed in odium fidei.
Pilgrims who book a tour in English might be led through the Scavi by Andrew DeRouen, a seminarian studying for the Diocese of Lake Charles and living at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome. A member of Calcasieu Council 1207 in Lake Charles, La., DeRouen is one of seven NAC seminarians who have the opportunity to “bring people closer to Peter” every month.
“It’s an extremely humbling ministry,” he said. “I have a more active role as a father, actually leading people in their faith to a site that will change their lives.”
BENEATH THE SURFACE
Nearly 2,000 years ago, on the territory that is today the Vatican, the Roman Empire had gardens and a circus where Christians were martyred under Emperor Nero. According to tradition, St. Peter was crucified head down here between 64 and 67 A.D., and then buried nearby. A century later, a small tomb was built to mark the site, on which the original St. Peter’s Basilica was built by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.
The magnificent structure we know today was built between 1506 and 1626. Until this time, Zander explained, popes had not allowed any exploratory activity to “disturb the rest of those killed during Nero’s bloody persecution.”
In 1626, excavations made for the foundations of Bernini’s canopy unearthed many pagan tombs but not a trace of anything Christian. All further investigations ceased. Archaeologist Margherita Guarducci states in her book The Tomb of St. Peter (1960), “The fear of finding something down there which would contradict or modify the tradition dear to the faithful overcame the desire to appease a burning curiosity.”
Finally, in 1939, workmen were digging a grave and chapel for the recently deceased Pope Pius XI, whose dying wish was to be buried in the Vatican grottoes and to make the space more accessible to pilgrims. Less than a foot below the floor of the grottoes, they hit the upper corner of an ancient mausoleum.
This unexpected discovery prompted Pope Pius XII to launch what was to become one of the greatest archaeological explorations of the 20th century. On June 28, 1939, the vigil of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, he ordered a series of clandestine excavations under the Vatican grottoes.
Born in Rome, the newly elected pope had been captivated by stories of the Roman martyrs since childhood. Pius XII was also interested in archaeology and the great potential of enlisting science in the service of the faith. Among other reasons to initiate the project, he had served as apostolic nuncio in Berlin and wanted to refute Protestant voices in Germany that denied the existence of St. Peter’s tomb beneath the basilica.
The “Apostle Project,” as it was called, was anonymously financed by oil magnate George Strake, a Catholic from Texas, and excavations began as World War II raged across Europe.
Eventually, in 1942, bones were discovered very close to where tradition had always held Peter was buried. Once wrapped in a purple and gold cloth, signifying the person was held in great esteem, the bones were found in a marble- lined niche within a wall, which itself was inscribed with graffiti that included the Greek words Petros eni — “Peter is here.”
When the remains were medically examined years later, it was determined that they belonged to an individual believed to be 5 feet and 7 inches and who was between the age of 60 and 70 at the time of his death. Moreover, bones from the feet were conspicuously absent — compatible with someone who was crucified upside down and cut down from the cross.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI declared the bones to be Peter’s “in a manner which we believe convincing.”
IN PETER’S PRESENCE
Although the Vatican has been careful not to express absolute certainty about St. Peter’s remains, it has nonetheless encouraged veneration.
Zander noted that during the final days of St. John Paul II’s pontificate, “He liked to have a small silver box with some of the remains close to him.”
Pope Francis made a point of visiting the Vatican necropolis just 19 days after his election to the Chair of St. Peter — the first pontiff in history to do so.
The Fabbrica di San Pietro, led by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, oversees the necropolis, which today is visited by about 62,000 people each year. Small groups are led through sensoroperated glass doors and into another age. A climate control system keeps humidity levels high to help preserve the site.
Seminarians at the North American College have been leading Scavi tours for years, one of several apostolates they can choose from during their second year in Rome. With a background in architecture, DeRouen asked to be a guide; he now serves as coordinator of the seminarians who have been given this ministry.
At least twice a month, he leads groups of people through the narrow passages of the ancient burial ground. The tour lasts more than an hour and culminates in a visit to the tomb of St. Peter.
“We can be close to Peter in a tangible way, which really allows us to be in touch with the weakness of our humanity and see the amazing things that are possible from a man who’s at his core repentant,” DeRouen said. “He understands the value of his friendship with Jesus and the necessity of admitting his own broken humanity.”
Familiarity has not dulled DeRouen’s wonder. “Every single time, you cannot leave the site unchanged,” he said.
Zander, in an interview last year, similarly said, “When I approach the so-called ‘Graffiti Wall,’ my knees bend, because I feel I am in the presence of Peter, who was appointed by Christ as his vicar on earth.”
DeRouen acknowledges that these are not easy times for many young men preparing for the priesthood, partly due to the recent clerical sexual abuse scandals. Nonetheless, he said his experience in the Scavi has strengthened his vocation.
“To be in the Scavi with Peter,” he said, “and to know that God can still work through utter denial, I have every hope in being a priest, and in the sacraments that have been passed on by Christ, through the hands of his very fallen apostles.”
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INÉS SAN MARTÍN is the Rome bureau chief for Crux. Visit cruxnow.com