It is rare that a Church that is more than 2,000 years old gets to enjoy new revelations about one of its founding apostles. But on June 28, at vespers for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI ended the year dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle announcing new scientific data supporting the long-held belief that the saint's remains lie underneath the main altar of the basilica dedicated to him.

The announcement was later followed by a detailed explanation of the analysis of St. Paul's tomb at a press conference in the Vatican on July 3. Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, and the Vatican Museums' chief scientist, professor Ulderico Santamaria, hosted the presentation.

Cardinal Cordero said he had spoken with Pope Benedict two years ago, urging him to allow scientific testing on the remains found under the high altar of the basilica in 2006. According to Cardinal Cordero, the pope agreed but stipulated that the findings not be the announced until the end of the Pauline Year.

New details announced

The first discovery was the date of the sarcophagus in question. The sarcophagus was buried beneath the main altar, under a marble tombstone bearing the Latin inscription "Paulo Apostolo Mart.," meaning "Apostle Paul, Martyr."

The cardinal revealed that: "The sarcophagus has never been opened in 20 centuries, and these tests produced results that are not only very interesting but essentially point to the fact that everything that was found belongs to a tomb from the first or second century. This supports the tradition that it is the tomb of St. Paul," he concluded.

More supporting evidence is found in the important traces of fabric removed from the tomb for testing. Cardinal Cordero explained that the blue and purple fabrics found were interwoven with gold thread, "which was reserved only for important tombs," and that the granules of incense pointed to a "religious aspect" of the deceased.

Since the exploration of St. Paul's tomb began some two years ago, everything was carried out under what Cardinal Cordero described as "pontifical secrecy" until the pope himself decided to make the results public.

Opening the tomb

Professor Santamaria, director of the scientific laboratory of the Vatican Museums, was involved firsthand with the analysis of the sacred remains. He explained the technical aspects of the survey.

According to Santamaria, a small hole was made in the sarcophagus wall with a drill the size of a dentist's drill through which a small probe was inserted. The microscopic camera allowed them to see the contents within. Santamaria reiterated that they were very careful not to touch any of the materials inside except with microsurgical tweezers when removing samples for testing.

The way in which the tomb was examined was also important, said Santamaria. The researchers involved made sure every care was taken to respect the "sacredness of the location." What they found were bone fragments along with pieces of blue linen, and purple linen that was interwoven with gold thread along with grains of red incense.

Carbon-14 dating

The samples taken from the tomb were then sent off for carbon-14 dating -- a way of determining the age of certain archaeological artifacts that have a biological origin of up to 50,000 years. Professor Santamaria said that the results of those tests proved without a doubt that they belong to a person who lived in the first or second centuries. But as to whether they were the remains of St. Paul, he said, "the scientific investigations do not confirm and they do not exclude" this possibility.

Cardinal Cordero revealed that the pope was open to the possibility of allowing a more vigorous analysis of St. Paul's sarcophagus, but it has not been done during the Pauline Year so as not to interrupt the visits of pilgrims to the holy site. In order to open the sarcophagus, he said they would have to dismantle the papal altar above the remains along with the very heavy marble baldachin from the 13th century -- a task that would be both delicate and difficult.

Similar discoveries

These recent discoveries seem to echo back to the discovery of St. Peter's tomb during World War II. Like those of St. Paul, St. Peter's bones were also found underneath the main altar of "his" basilica. The bones were wrapped in fabric of purple linen interwoven with gold thread, and ancient inscriptions over the tomb read: "Peter is within." One can only expect that once excavations are finished at St. Paul Outside the Walls the results will be similar to those obtained from excavating St. Peter's tomb. There will be much evidence to support the claim that the tomb and its contents belong to St. Paul, but without absolute certainty. Certainty is impossible in such cases, but what skeptics will overlook is the fact that the evidence does not contradict the claim.

The excavations of the tomb will continue for years as will the myriad of articles about the discoveries made. However, instead of getting entrenched in discussions about authenticity, perhaps one blogger put it best when he said: "I get more excited about an empty tomb."

St. Paul's portrait found

But St. Paul's tomb was just one of two major revelations at the end of the Pauline Year. Headlines were also filled with news about the oldest known portrait of the saint that was found by accident last month in the catacombs of St. Thecla in Rome.

Hailing it as one of "the oldest and most detailed" portraits of the saint ever discovered, the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, dedicated two full pages to the find.

As workers were cleaning layers of limestone and clay off the ceiling of the fourth-century catacomb on Rome's Via Ostiense, their lasers "brought to light the severe and recognizable face of St. Paul." The portrait,they said, was one of the most "ancient and defined" in the tradition of ancient Christian art.

From his conversion on the road to Damascus to his martyrdom, St. Paul continues to provide a powerful witness in the third millennium. These recent discoveries shine a new light on ancient Catholic beliefs, injecting new life into the veneration of Sts. Peter and Paul, the founders of the Church in Rome.

In a certain sense, Pope Benedict began his pontificate at St. Paul Outside the Walls. His first visit was there, the day after he inaugurated his pontificate, on April 25, 2005. Perhaps it is fitting that four years later St. Paul's sacred remains should come to light on this pope's watch. The pope admitted he was moved by the findings. "All this," he said in his June 28 homily, "fills our soul with profound emotion."

Sts. Peter and Paul still alive among us

Speaking on Vatican Radio July 4 in his capacity as director of the Radio, Father Federico Lombardi offered his own interpretation of the recent discoveries. He said that even though the veneration of relics is not as popular in our modern culture as it was in the past, the concrete places and records of those who have preceded us, especially the saints, "have a great value in helping us to understand our being rooted in the living tradition of faith." In a special way, he said, Sts. Peter and Paul "continue to attract our gaze and our footsteps to Rome 'ad limina Aspostolorum' (an ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the burial places of St. Peter and St. Paul)." They remain, he concluded, "alive among us to orientate and enliven our faith and relaunch it to the ends of the earth."

Mary Shovlain writes from Rome.