In the fourth century, at the behest of the Emperor Constantine (the first Christian emperor), the site was filled and covered with dirt to serve as the foundation for the first basilica built over the grave of St. Peter, which was, according to tradition, located in this cemetery. This fourth century building would later be demolished in the 1500s to make way for the "new" basilica that we all know and recognize today as "St. Peter's." But, in creating the foundation for the fourth century basilica, Constantine's builders inadvertently preserved those early family mausoleums -- a remarkable fact not realized until the 1930s.
|Example of the interior of one of the 22 family tombs in the Vatican necropolis.|
From the 1930s until the 1950s, archaeologists meticulously excavated the entire expanse beneath the current St. Peter's Basilica. They uncovered a vast "city of the dead" (necropolis) which stretched the entire length of the building and contained about 22 family mausoleums. And, directly underneath the high altar of the basilica, at one end of the necropolis, they found the remains of a first-century grave which had evidently been the site of Christian veneration from at least the second century and which had been meticulously marked and honored by generations of Christians. In fact, archaeologists later confirmed that, in all likelihood, the final of resting place of the Apostle Peter is, indeed, beneath St. Peter's high altar. (More information about the scavi and St. Peter's tomb can be found here).
When in Rome a few years ago, we were able to tour the excavations of the Vatican necropolis. It is honestly one of the coolest things that I have ever done. And, at the end of the tour, you find yourself in the area of Peter's tomb, able to see the bones of the apostle, carefully replaced into the "niche" in which they were discovered. It is, to say the least, a very moving experience.
I was surprised to read that Pope Francis is the first pope to make an official visit to this awesome (though little known) corner of the Church's early history. Following, below, is a cool first-hand report of the pope's visit from Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the Cardinal Archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica:
|Pope Francis touring the scavi on Monday.|
Pope Francis had a great desire to visit the Vatican Necropolis. He mentioned it a little before Easter. He especially wished to see the tomb of the Apostle Peter, the place in which the Christians of Rome laid the crucified body of the first Pope to rest after his martyrdom in the Circus of Nero in the year 67 after Christ.
The Pope thus wished to go to the origin of the Roman Pontificate, a succession into which Providence today has ordained to add his person.
Monday afternoon, 1 April, we had the joy and the honour of accompanying Pope Francis along this unique path. From the level of the Vatican Grottos we descended to the necropolis: a jump back 1,800 years. Up until 1939-40, this site was buried because the architects working for Constantine, in 320, in order to fashion a level floor of the first basilica, filled in the sloping land of the Vatican Hill. Today, after excavations, everything has prodigiously re-emerged.
His first stop was before the Egyptian Mausoleum (which dates back to the 2nd century). In this mausoleum amid many pagan tombs there is also a Christian tomb. Christianity in fact, like yeast, was penetrating the pagan world. The Pope exclaimed in admiration: “It's like this today, too!”.
We then made a second stop before the funerary stele of a man called Istatilio. He was certainly Christian: on his grave is the monogram XP of Christ. On the stele is inscribed: “He was at peace with everyone and never caused strife”. The Pope, after reading the phrase, looked at us and said: “that is a beautiful programme of life”. When we had reached at the place of the tomb of the Apostle Peter I saw the Holy Father transfixed, visibly moved, before the white wall covered with graffiti, testimonies to us even today of devotion to the Apostle Peter.
Climbing back up the stairs and having reached the Clementine Chapel, Pope Francis became absorbed in prayer and repeated with a loud voice the three professions of Peter: “Lord, You are the Christ, Son of the Living God”; “Lord, to whom do we go? You have the words of eternal life”; “Lord, You know all things! You know that I love you!”. At that moment, we had the distinct impression that the life of Peter rose out of centuries past and became present and living in the current Successor of the Apostle Peter.
With me were: Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, delegate of the Fabric of St Peter's, Mons. Alfred Xuereb and those responsible for the necropolis, Pietro Zander and Mario Bosco. When we took our leave of the Holy Father we thought that he returned to his residence comforted by the echo of Jesus' words: “You are Peter, the rock on whom I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.