by Fr. Larry Rice, CSP
Although lost for centuries, the tomb of St. Peter, Apostle and the first pope, was found when a team working beneath St. Peter’s Basilica between 1939 and 1949 discovered an extensive complex of mausoleums from the second and third centuries. In addition to this Roman necropolis, the present basilica was also built on top of the ruins of the Constantinian basilica, which was, itself, apparently constructed such that its main altar is directly above the tomb of St. Peter.
Today, it is possible to tour these excavations. Small groups are led underground through the ancient Roman burial places, past the Constantinian basilica’s remains, and finally to the tomb that most scholars believe contains the remains of St. Peter. Nicknamed the “Scavi” tour for the Italian word for excavations, reservations must be requested months in advance from the Vatican Excavations Office. To contact the office, go to the Vatican website (www.vatican.va) and search on the word “Scavi.” For those who are not traveling to Rome or are unable to secure a ticket for the tour, you can take a guided virtual tour by accessing a link on the Vatican Excavations Office’s webpage.
A visit to St. Peter’s Tomb and the Vatican Necropolis delivers a striking contrast: Above one’s head is the largest church in Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica, a stunningly beautiful and triumphant monument to the papacy. And below, providing its foundations, literally and figuratively, is the burial place of a simple fisherman, who left his nets to follow Jesus, eventually dying a martyr’s death at the nearby Roman circus. To see these two things together is an essentially Catholic experience, a reminder of both the origins humble of our faith, and the marvels God has accomplished through his Church.
“While no pope has ever declared St. Peter’s bones to be authentic, Pope Paul VI said in 1968 that the ‘relics’ of St. Peter had been ‘identified in a way which we can hold to be convincing.’” (CNS)
The first exposition for public veneration of the bones of St. Peter occurred during the closing Mass for the Year of Faith on November 24, 2013, in St. Peter’s Square. During the Mass, Pope Francis, the 265th successor of Peter, held a reliquary containing eight bone fragments, each two to three centimeters long, for several minutes in silent prayer while choirs sang the Nicene Creed in Latin. (CNS)
Fr. Rice is Vocations Director for the Paulist Fathers.