For the conclusion of the Year of Faith, Pope Francis has done something unprecedented—he has 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 will have the opportunity to pray before the remains of the first pope.
While the relics of most saints repose in a shrine of gold, or silver, or marble, St. Peter’s bones lie in several plexiglass boxes inside the very modest tomb that was built for him about 1800 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, structurally unsound 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. The newly elected pope, Pius XII, called for a major renovation of the Vatican Grottoes, the crypt beneath the sanctuary where many popes were buried. The plan for this reconstruction called for transforming the Grottoes from a cramped burial chamber into a series of crypt chapels. To accomplish this, the floor of the Grottoes would be lowered by two-and-a-half feet. Everyone in the Vatican knew that there were Roman remains under the basilica, but no one had any idea what type of remains were there—no one had seen them in 1600 years. Then, in January 1941, workmen uncovered an elegant mausoleum. The archeologists who were called in to examine the find declared that it was a discovery of genuine importance. On their recommendation, Pius XII gave permission for a full-scale excavation of the area beneath the Grottoes. To direct the excavation, Pius appointed a team of archeologists, architects, and experts in the catacombs and Early Christian inscriptions. Managing the project was Msgr. Ludwig Kaas, the administrator of the Basilica of St. Peter.
In a very short time the archeologists knew that beneath St. Peter’s they had found an ancient Roman cemetery, and as the excavation proceeded, they convinced 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 archeologists 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 night, Msgr. Kaas, escorted by Giovanni Segoni, the foreman of the sampietrini, the crew that maintains the fabric of St. Peter’s, made a tour of the day’s excavation. Msgr. Kaas was always afraid that human remains might be mishandled by the archeologists, and often came away from these evening tours with boxes of bones which he intended to have returned to their graves after the excavation was completed. That night Msgr. Kaas had Segoni reach inside the newly found tomb to see if it contained bones—at the time, neither man knew that the tomb might be St. Peter’s. As usual, Segoni boxed up the bones he found inside, labeled them, and put the box in storage. About a decade later, Segoni told the story of the bones to Prof. Guarducci. She took the story to Pope Pius, who ordered a thorough examination of the bones. That took more than a decade, and after reviewing the report of the scientists who had studied the bones, in 1968 Pope Paul VI announced to the world, “The relics of Saint Peter have been identified in a way which we consider as persuasive.”
The day after he made this announcement, Pope Paul led a small procession down 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—known as the Scavi—and reservations must be made months in advance. Now, for a brief time, Pope Francis is giving the world access to what few visitors to Rome have ever seen, the bones of St. Peter.