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Subterranean mystery tour

NCR Staff

Certain spots seem flooded with holiness, places where mystery crackles in the air. The tomb of St. Peter, part of an ancient Roman necropolis buried 40 feet deep under St. Peter’s Basilica, offers a case in point.

Descending a metal staircase, analogous in my mind to descending through centuries of Christian tradition, and following the first-century stone street leading to the tomb was a sublime experience. The hush, the soft lighting, the ghosts of Christian history create an air of anticipation powerful enough to evoke the presence of what Rudolf Otto, in his classic Idea of the Holy, describes as “tremendous and fascinating mystery.”

Beyond a pilgrimage to Christian origins, though, this visit to the ancient cemetery that contains St. Peter’s tomb is also an encounter with a riveting detective story. Are Peter’s bones buried in the place long known as Peter’s tomb? Despite Paul VI’s unequivocal “yes” in 1968, questions have long lingered. Perhaps they always will.

After two years of cleaning, lighting and reconstruction, the ancient cemetery can now be seen more or less as it was when small bands of Christians furtively scratched their testimonies on its walls. Visitors can soak in the spiritual energy, muse over whether the bones preserved under Plexiglas are really St. Peter’s -- and ponder how to reconcile this humble legacy of a persecuted sect with the massive baroque splendor of the 16th-century basilica that rises above it.

My wife, Shannon, and I went down into the scavi, as the site is called in Italian, on a rainy Saturday morning in early October, one week after details of the restoration had been presented at a news conference. Accompanying us on our tour was Pietro Zander, an official from the Vatican’s excavations office, along with Nazzareno Gabrielli, the avuncular director of scientific research for the Vatican museums. Gabrielli was an ideal companion, explaining complicated points of microbiology one minute, joking the next that he’d never entered a particular mausoleum because he is too portly for its narrow door.

The environment is hot and dank. Visitors have been known to faint. Gabrielli, however, said the oppressive humidity is a necessary preservation strategy. Because they were buried in damp soil near the Tiber River, the walls of the necropolis soaked up moisture. If they become too dry, many of the magnificent images on their surfaces would dissolve.

This delicacy also vastly complicated the process of removing 16 centuries of grime. A square foot could take six hours to complete, sometimes using the equivalent of an electric toothbrush.

Making the rounds with members of the project’s brain trust did have its privileges. At one point, we stepped inside a mausoleum normally off limits, as Gabrielli wanted to explain something about differences in the masonry used to construct the walls. He proceeded to thump the walls and encouraged us to do the same. He swiftly brought down a small chunk of masonry, which elicited little more than a bemused “mama mia” and a shrug. Were I to do the same thing under different circumstances, I couldn’t help thinking, I would probably find out what the Swiss Guards are capable of doing with their halberds.

Preserving the necropolis

As Gabrielli explained it, the two-year restoration project was driven by the need to preserve the necropolis, not just for scientists and historians, but for pilgrims. Its lighting, its organization, its mood was planned to be one that invites prayer rather than research. The tomb exists, Gabrielli said, above all, to lead Christians back to their roots.

Difficult as it is to imagine today, there once was a Rome without the papacy, a Rome in which the word Vatican referred not to the world’s most powerful religious bureaucracy but to a hill outside the city notorious for bad wine and too many snakes. In the second century, some wealthy pagan families built tombs here.

For the earliest Roman Christians, the hill is a site of supreme importance. Here, they believed, the apostle Peter had been martyred under Nero -- crucified upside down at his own request in a final act of humility (believing himself unworthy to die in the same manner as his master).

When Constantine decided in 330 to build a basilica in Peter’s honor, he chose the Vatican hill. He did so despite two major obstacles -- the need to fill in tons of earth to create a level space and the political uproar that must have followed his decision to build over a graveyard, then as now considered an act of sacrilege. The tombs were filled in with dirt and remained sealed for the next 1,600 years.

When Constantine’s basilica was torn down to build the present St. Peter’s in the 16th century, its floor was preserved a few feet under the new structure, creating a space for crypts for popes and other ecclesiastical VIPs, such as Queen Christina of Sweden. In 1939, Pius XII needed a place to inter his predecessor and authorized lowering the floor. About two feet down the workmen struck a brick wall, and the rediscovery of the necropolis was the result.

Popes all along had known that the basilica was supposedly erected over a pagan cemetery, said to house Peter’s tomb. But for 15 centuries there had been no exploration; the site was felt to be too sacred. Pius XII, however, had been impressed by the massive global interest in the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. When presented with a proposal to excavate he approved.

Supervising the excavation

The work was administered by four archaeologists under the supervision of Msgr. Ludwig Kaas, a friend of Pius XII. Their friendship dated to the pope’s days as nuncio in Germany. Kaas -- one of the figures in Pius XII’s controversial relationship with Nazi Germany -- had been the head of the Catholic Center Party, and his support had been critical in passing bills in 1933 that handed Hitler absolute power. Kaas followed Pius to Rome, where he was given responsibility for running St. Peter’s Basilica.

Kaas meddled constantly. Finally a deal was struck: The archaeologists would be left alone during the day, but Kaas would check their work at night. He did so with an employee named Giovanni Segoni. Incredible as it may sound, whenever they would find bones during these nightly inspections, Kaas would order Segoni to put them in boxes and store them for reburial, away from the prying hands of scholars.

On one such evening in early 1942, Kaas came upon a small cavity in a wall near Peter’s tomb that the archaeologists had not explored. He told Segoni to scoop up the bones lying therein and consign them to a storeroom. Kaas died shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, archaeologists penetrated the tomb under the high altar. There, along with bones heaped together under a wall, they found markings linking the space with Peter. These, the discoverers felt, were undoubtedly the apostle’s remains. The pope’s personal physician, asked to examine them, pronounced them the bones of a strongly built man. His age at death was estimated to have been 65 to 70. That was enough to convince most of the project leaders that the bones belonged to Peter, though the pope retained some doubts.

During the Holy Year in 1950, Pius announced that the tomb of St. Peter had been found “beyond all doubt.” The pope then said that some bones had also been found, and while it was impossible to establish them as Peter’s, he left the impression they were something special.

In 1956, Pius permitted rigorous scientific examination in response to mounting demand. It emerged that what his physician had identified as the remains of one man were actually bones of three different people, along with scores of animals. Of the humans, two were men in their 50s, and one was a woman in her 70s. Clearly, these were not the fisherman’s bones.

Strange graffiti

As this disappointment unfolded, another scholar, Margherita Guarducci, was at work deciphering some strange graffiti found on a necropolis wall. One day in 1952 she happened to be standing by the cavity emptied by Kaas a decade before, and asked Segoni, who was still laboring away, if anything had been found inside. He led her to the storeroom and the bones. She made nothing of them, simply recommending that the specialists take a look.

It was 1962 before the bones were identified as those of a man 5 feet 7 inches tall, of heavy build, aged between 60 and 70. The hollow of the bones contained soil, suggesting they had lain in a bare earth grave. Stains suggested the bones had been wrapped in a purplish, gold-threaded cloth.

In the meantime, Guarducci found a partial inscription by the cavity that she reconstructed as “Petros Eni,” which in ancient Greek could mean “Peter is within.” She concluded that the bones gathered from the cavity by Kaas must be those of Peter -- moved out of the tomb 1,800 years ago, she theorized, during a persecution.

She presented this theory to Paul VI in 1964. After additional tests, the pope was convinced, despite the fact that three of the original four archaeologists dissented. Paul announced that the bones of Peter had been identified “in a manner which we believe convincing.” On June 27, 1968, Paul re-interred them in Peter’s tomb, stored in 19 Plexiglas cases.

Despite the declaration, debate has intensified. Why, some ask, would the early Christians not have moved the bones back after the danger had passed, given their passion for preserving the tomb’s exact site? Others suggest that Guarducci’s inscription is open to many interpretations.

Under the impact of such scrutiny, the Vatican has backed away from Paul’s confidence. At the Sept. 29 news conference, Cardinal Virgilio Noè, archpriest of the basilica, said the church is in a “very discrete and insecure position” on the bones. One must understand references to Peter’s remains, he said, as “a bit relative.” Moreover, Noe said, the site has a “kerygmatic message for tourists and pilgrims” independent of whether the remains are genuine.

Just what is that message? The Vatican’s version, offered up with youthful zeal by seminarians from the North American College who act as tour guides for English-speaking visitors, has to do with love for the “prince of the apostles” and a special bond with the Holy Father.

Undeniably, that’s part of the experience. A Catholic cannot walk these passageways, peer into its long-forgotten places, without imaginatively identifying with the first band of Roman believers huddled around the memory of their founder.

Yet there’s something more. To ponder one’s origins is always, in some sense, to critique the present. It prompts us to ask how the church once understood itself, and how faithfully we have lived that vision. The spiritual power of the necropolis is that it invites the question without dictating an answer.

And what of Peter’s bones? Perhaps those approximately 134 fragments really are his remains. We will almost certainly never know; as with the so-called “Jesus boat” lifted out of the Sea of Galilee in 1986, the best we can do is conclude that the materials were in the right place and come from approximately the right time.

In a sense, the bones are “relics by contact.” Whether they are Peter’s, they laid for centuries in his tomb, giving them a strong association with the apostle.

The wonder of coming here is not contained in bones. It is in the chance to see oneself in the light of eternity, to ponder beginnings and ends. For that purpose the necropolis itself, now beautifully restored, serves well.

Requests for visits to the necropolis must be made with the Vatican’s Ufficio Scavi. The fax number is 06.69885518; reservations must be made 20 days in advance.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000