Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bones of St. Peter

The newspaper headlines today in Rome and, I imagine, around the world, are along these lines: THE REMAINS OF ST. PETER TO BE EXPOSED TO THE PUBLIC: a headline which is both startling and misleading. What the public will actually see in St. Peter's Basilica beginning November 25 of this year is the reliquary which contains the relics of the Apostle, what remains of his bones, by now fragments and dust. This reliquary is said to have been provided in the 1960's by Paul VI and exposed in the pope's private chapel. I have also seen written reports that the reliquary with the remains of Peter were brought to the hospital room of John Paul II after his attempted assassination in 1981. Since the relics of Peter are once again in the headlines, I have decided to provide this very brief and hopefully simple explanation of the very complicated process which led to this announcement.


The story begins in modern times, 1939, when Vatican workers were preparing the burial place of Pope Pius XI in the Vatican grottoes, or crypt, below the floor of St. Peter's Basilica. They accidentally broke through the floor of the grottoes and discovered an ancient Roman cemetery. The new pope, Pius XII gave permission to excavate this area in the hopes of finding archaeological evidence to support the literary evidence and the centuries-old belief that St. Peter was buried beneath the main altar of the basilica.


Excavations in the cemetery went on during the 1940's and 1950's, and indeed major discoveries were made. Beneath the current altar of Clement VIII (1584) was found the earlier altar of Callixtus II (1123) and below that one, the still earlier altar of Gregory the Great (590). Beneath the altar of Gregory they discovered a monument built by the emperor Constantine between 321 and 326. This monument enclosed yet another one dated to the second century. Here was found a red plaster wall covered with graffiti, beyond and beneath which was a first-century tomb. All of this directly below the main altar of the basilica.


The evidence uncovered by these excavations convinced Pius XII to announce to the world on Christmas Eve, 1949 that the tomb of Peter had been discovered. The Pope, however, did not claim that the bones of the Apostle had also been found. So where were the bones? Incredibly, in 1942, unbeknown to the archaeologists, a Vatican official, Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, and one of the Vatican workers, bored a whole in the tomb and scooped up the bones, along with pieces of plaster, dumped it all into a shoe box and stored it in a closet in the Vatican! He wrote on the top of the box the words ossa – urna – graf (bones, urn, graffiti). The only people aware of this were Kaas and the one Vatican worker who assisted him.


After the death of Monsignor Kaas in 1952, new excavations were carried out in the early 1960's, led by Dr. Margherita Guarducci, a professor at the University of Rome and an expert in the interpretation of ancient writings. She began to decipher the graffiti writings found on the red plaster wall. All were important discoveries, but one in particular was truly amazing. It was a small piece of red plaster which had been found earlier inside the graffiti-filled wall, on the first-century tomb. It contained two Greek words: PETROS ENI, which Guarducci translated as PETER IS WITHIN. This discovery, of course, strengthened the claim that this was indeed the tomb of Peter.


Guarducci, however, was puzzled by the fact that the earlier archaeologists had not found bones in the tomb. One day she met the Vatican worker who had assisted Monsignor Kaas in removing the bones, and he related the story to her. He then led her to the closet where the box had been stored since 1942. These bones were analyzed and found to have belonged to one individual, as opposed to other bones found in the cemetery pertaining to more than one person. This individual was judged to be an elderly male of heavy build about five feet seven inches tall. In addition it was found that the encrusted soil found with the bones dated to the first century. In short, this discovery led Pope Paul VI to announce to the world on June 27, 1968, that the bones of St. Peter had been discovered.


I for one find it very exciting to live in these times when discoveries are being made which validate traditional Christian beliefs that have been around for two thousand years, since the very beginning of Christianity.


So if you are planning to visit St. Peter's Basilica on or after November 25, 2013, you will have the opportunity to see at least the reliquary which holds the sacred remains of St. Perter. Unfortunately, this also means that the line to enter the basilica will be even longer than usual!


Sean Valjean said...

This has to be one of the most interesting Rome attractions. The history and intrigue that surround this are fascinating.

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