For the conclusion of the Year of Faith, Pope Francis did something unprecedented. He decided to place the relics of St. Peter on exposition for public veneration. For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, the faithful have had the opportunity to pray before the remains of the first pope.
While the relics of most saints repose in a shrine of gold, silver or marble, St. Peter’s bones lie in several plexiglass boxes inside the very modest tomb that was built for him about 1,800 years ago. How the tomb and the bones were discovered is a remarkable story, and it begins in 323, when Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, decided to build a magnificent basilica over the tomb of St. Peter. In Constantine’s church, the tomb was visible beneath the high altar, but over the centuries, as the basilica was renovated and modified, the tomb could no longer be seen.
By the early 16th century, when Pope Julius II ordered the demolition of the old basilica and the construction of a new Basilica of St. Peter — the one that we see today — the architects were careful to place the new high altar at the exact spot where the high altar in the old church had stood. By that time, no one had seen the actual tomb of St. Peter for centuries, but the tradition that it was below the main altar survived.
Flash forward to 1940. Pope Pius XII called for a major renovation of the Vatican grottoes, the crypt beneath the sanctuary where many popes were buried. The plan called for transforming the grottoes from a cramped burial chamber into a series of crypt chapels.
In January 1941, workmen uncovered an elegant mausoleum. The archaeologists who were called in to examine the find declared that it was a discovery of genuine importance. On their recommendation, Pope Pius gave permission for a full-scale excavation of the area beneath the grottoes. To direct the excavation, Pius appointed a team of archaeologists, architects and experts in the catacombs and in early Christian inscriptions. Managing the project was Msgr. Ludwig Kaas, the administrator of the Basilica of St. Peter.
‘Peter is within’
In a very short time the archaeologists knew that beneath St. Peter’s they had found an ancient Roman cemetery, and as the excavation proceeded, they persuaded Pope Pius to grant them permission to excavate beneath the high altar of the basilica, in hope of finding St. Peter’s tomb.
In 1942, the archaeologists found a modest tomb beneath the high altar. The exterior walls were covered with rough inscriptions scratched into the plaster, including one in Greek, “Petr Eni,” which professor Margherita Guarducci, an expert in ancient inscriptions, translated as “Peter is within.”
That same night, Msgr. Kaas and Giovanni Segoni, the foreman of the crew that maintains the fabric of St. Peter’s, made a tour of the day’s excavation. Msgr. Kaas was afraid that human remains might be mishandled by the archaeologists, so he often came away from evening tours with boxes of bones that he intended to have returned to their graves after the excavation was completed. Msgr. Kaas had Segoni reach inside the newly found tomb to see if it contained bones (neither man knew that the tomb might be St. Peter’s). As usual, Segoni boxed up the bones, labeled them and put the box in storage.
Return to resting place
About a decade later, Segoni told the story of the bones to Guarducci. She told Pope Pius, who ordered a thorough examination of the bones. That took more than a decade. Finally, in 1968 Pope Paul VI announced, “The relics of St. Peter have been identified in a way which we consider as persuasive.”
The next day, Pope Paul led a small procession down to the tomb now believed to be St. Peter’s, and looked on as the bones of the Prince of the Apostles were returned to their burial place. Today, the tomb can be visited and the bones seen, but only by small groups on an escorted tour of the excavation. Now, for a brief time, Pope Francis has given the world access to what few visitors to Rome have ever seen — the bones of St. Peter.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “St. Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope were Lost and Found ... and Then Lost and Found Again” (Image, $14.99), to be released in January.