Rome Diaries - Week 49

From 2006 to 2011 Paulist Father Tom Holahan served as vice rector of the Paulist church in Rome. During that time he had the opportunity to spend time exploring the historic sites of Rome as well as the hidden ones. The blog features excerpts from this travel diary. A new selection appears each week.

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March 4, 2008

Finally, I tour the scavi (excavations) under St. Peter’s. This official Vatican tour is often the highlight of a visit to Rome, but it does not sit too well with me. I’ve probably been prejudiced by a course I took from the legendary Johannes Quasten, an expert in ancient Christianity, who spent his entire time on a slide show and diatribe against the proposition that the Vatican can say definitively it possess the bones of St. Peter. In the end, the tour guide admits that we, perhaps, know the “area” where the bones were. Maybe my influential professor had something to do with this diffidence. Of course, Rome is crammed with relics that are either questioned or reverenced, depending on the faith of the passerby. But the bones of St. Peter are in a class by themselves; they are the most important ancient Christian relics discovered in the 20th century.


Unfortunately some of the first modern science applied to the excavations was not entirely professional. It all started as a routine improvement to the dirt floor basement of St. Peter’s in the late 1930’s. Soon after Pius XII became pope, workers were given permission to excavate beneath what look to be the top of a 2nd century mausoleum. Could this be evidence of a burial ground which contained the bones of Peter, who was martyred in the adjacent “Circus of Nero”? The present basilica had been positioned using the plan of the 4th century church it replaced to have its high altar directly above the burial site of St. Peter, but in the 16th century this positioning was simply taken on faith. After three years of digging only at night (the Nazis curiosity would have confiscated lost sacred objects for the Reich) a ancient tropaion (monument) was found with later – Christian -- inscriptions that indicated Peter may have been buried nearby. At this point, Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, Pius XII’s friend and former advisor on relations with Hitler’s government who now managed St. Peter’s excavations, took a clandestine and personal interest in things. Kaas had hoped to find Peter in a beautiful bronze casket. When only scattered bones of humans and animals were found, he became critical of all the archeologists’ work and one night, coming across the discoveries, carefully laid out, but only half-examined, he swept them into a small leaden box and hid it for safekeeping. Kaas died in 1952 and his secret stash of bones remained undiscovered for ten years.


During that time, a new expert was called into the excavations, Margherita Guarducci, a professor who held the Chair of Greek Epigraphy at the University of Rome. Thanks to her keen eye, a wealth of Christian symbols were revealed on the “Graffiti Wall” above the spot where Pius XII had uncovered what he thought to be the bones of Peter; this may indicate the desire of early Christians to be buried next to Peter. But the leaden box, when scientifically analyzed in the 1960’s, was an embarrassment – it turned out to be a collection of bones from three humans, an assortment of barnyard animals and a mouse. Nothing publicly was said about the results. When Cardinal Giovanni Montini ascended the papal throne as Paul VI in 1963, Margherita Guarducci felt she had the courageous supporter she needed; the new pope was a family friend, Guarducci brought up the topic of Monsignor Kaas’s hidden box of bones. On June 27th of the first year of his pontificate, Paul VI announced the new find to the world, but also said he wanted to withhold absolute verification that the box contained the bones of St. Peter until scientists could make further tests. Since then, such tests have been inconclusive because surrounding ancient tombs had been broken open when Constantine built the foundations for the first St. Peter’s. A trace of “Tyrian Purple,” the expensive dye extracted from marine mollusks and mentioned in texts dating back to about 1600 B.C., was found at the supposed site of St. Peter’s tomb. For me, this is the most convincing evidence that Constantine, the only one legally able to use such dye, had beheld the sacred bones of Peter. Now we can only take it on faith.


March 6, 2008

At the school where I am chaplain, a 7th grade boy, whose illustrious noble family can be traced back to medieval times, is trying to defend his actions. “You know, Sister, there are a few saints in my family.” His teacher responds, “I know, Pietro, but you’re not one of them!”


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