This pauper's grave, cut directly into the earth and covered with a few tiles, grows over the centuries into the splendid memorial of universal recognition.


From Peter to John Paul,
St. Peter's Basilica is Living History

 
A Personal Reflection by Msgr. Steven Otellini

This January I was called to Rome for a consulters meeting of chaplains for the Knights of Malta. Because I came the greatest distance, I planned to arrive a few days early to recover and to make the long trip worth while. It was the same week that the Holy Father was taken to the hospital. Little did I know that, in God's providence, the absence of the Sovereign Pontiff would allow me an unparalleled convergence of life experiences.

Wednesday is the usual day for Papal Audiences. Because the Holy Father was at the Gemelli Clinic, the scheduled audience for that day was cancelled. Consequently, because there are no tours offered in the Vatican on Wednesday mornings, the "Scavi," i.e. the excavations under St. Peter's, are closed. My friend, Paolo, the director of the office invited me to come for a look-see at my old haunts, through which for nine years I guided pilgrims in the most literally "apostolic" work I have ever done.

Crossing the Tiber one is drawn to recall the happy phrase which described the happier event of converts joining the Church of Rome, or "poping" as it is less happily expressed. With the looming view of Michelangelo's dome, I also recall the quip of Ronald Knox regarding Rome and ardent Catholics: "If you tend to get seasick, it is best not to go into the engine room." But we remember that it was in the "engine room" that the two young English dilettantes nobles in the 16th century who came to scoff at Roman enormities were so moved by the sight of the holy Pius V in a Eucharistic procession that they joined the Church of their derision and died heroes at Lepanto fighting beneath a banner blessed by the saintly mendicant who saved Europe.

I approached the looming basilica, always larger than one recalls it, and catalogue the ciphers of genius it presents: Bramante, Rafael, Michelangelo, Fontana, Bernini, Maderno. Its price was the Reformation as realists like to point out; but it is also the locus where T.S. Elliot inexplicably fell to his knees, leading later, more inexplicably, to his entering the Church of England.

Paolo awaited me in his cubicular office whose door does not even rise to half the height of what is the baseboard of the church's lateral facades. Paolo is a wonderfully diminutive man who has worked his whole life in the Vatican, most of that time in the Scavi Office. He has escorted kings, patriarchs, diplomats, presidents, prelates, movie stars and an occasional cretin into the necropolis. Most significantly this is the man who literally holds the keys of St. Peter.

The excavations were begun in 1939 when, preparing for the burial of Pius XI, a discovery was made of some ancient masonry below the floor level of the previous Constantinian Basilica. This led to excavations which continued for ten years uncovering the original Roman necropolis from the first century AD. This was built over the cemetery in which Roman slaves were buried, and the Jewish fisherman named Simon whose father was Jonah.

Much work is being done to stabilize the delicate climate and to preserve the ruins. The necropolis is remarkable in the variety and quality of structures it preserves, possibly the best in Italy. Magnificent frescoes and mosaics of vivid depiction adorn these resting places of prosperous Roman merchants. Paolo indicated, with a stalker's enthusiasm, the appearance of pheasants, peacocks, partridges, doves and a phoenix where cleaning had revealed their capture in a perpetual vibrancy. We lingered in the Valerian mausoleum where monochromatic stucco reliefs of fine reserve still preserve the physiognomy of its long-dead inhabitants. Here, in this mausoleum, are graffiti, from the time of Constantine, invoking the intercession of Peter for Christians who were hastily buried beneath the gigantic rising artificial plateau which would support the first basilica.

Paolo and I ascended one level to that floor height of the fourth century church. We skirted around to the north side of the "confessio" which is below the present papal altar. Here, in a tiny niche, are the pitifully few bone fragments which are believed to be those of Peter. They are spread on a white cushion in a glass box no larger than a shoe box and about two inches thick. Paolo removed the box from the cavity where the bones were originally discovered; and asked me to hold them as he made some adjustments to the tiny spot lights which illuminate the space.

I thought to myself, first of all, "My God, these tiny fragments are the reason for this enormous basilica, indeed two enormous successive basilicas". Then I thought, " Here I am holding the relics of St. Peter which probably not even the popes have done". What struck me as I looked at the chalky remains was that the only distinguishable part (at least to my untrained eye) was a tiny fragment of the right mandible with a partial tooth attached. This was the mouth that pronounced the divinely revealed words at Caesarea Philippi, the mouth that denied the Savior, the mouth that received the first Eucharist, which ate the fish cooked by the Risen Christ, and finally, in humble penitence, spoke the triple confession of love.

Paolo dusted the box, and I replaced it in its millennial encasement. The exterior facing of the wall is covered with graffiti dating from the latter part of the second century (when it was constructed) to the beginning of the third when Constantine enclosed everything in a giant marble reliquary. The inscriptions are difficult to read for they have been repeatedly over-inscribed; but there are clearly visible symbols of keys turned into Latin " P's" or even Greek " Rho's" with a "Chi" added. These are clever efforts of the ancient faithful to merge Christ with Peter and the charge he received from his Lord. In a striking coincidence, the same cryptographic graffiti is found at the "house of Peter" discovered at Capernaum.

Upon exiting the area of the excavations we passed the tomb of Pius XI which started this momentous discovery.  Paolo and I climbed to the main floor level of the current basilica where he led me to the first elevator ever installed in Rome (still frighteningly in operation!). We ascended through one of the massive pylons that support one of the lesser domes of the church. Upon reaching the roof level, we emerged into a very spacious and beautifully bricked beehive shaped room. This was Michelangelo's work room when he was acting as the architect for St. Peter's. It is now the archives for the basilica. It holds not only all the documents going back to Bramante's original work, but also such curiosities as the ropes that were used to re-erect the obelisk in St. Peter's Square.

I looked down from the formidable height that makes of the patterned marble floor a kind of petrified carpet. Pilgrims were coming and going in the quiet afternoon. The distance gave a perspective which crept from the spatial dimension to the temporal. It is said that the Coliseum can hold about 50,000 people. It is estimated that the Circus Maximus could accommodate about twice that. The circus of Nero where Peter was crucified was about the same size as the Circus Maximus. So by reasonable historical hypothesis maybe 100,000 Romans witnessed the games that Tacitus tells us occurred in 64 AD, after the fire of Rome, when the Christians were made scapegoats for the disaster, and Peter was crucified up-side-down. At the interment of Peter a few Christians were present for the miserable burial in a pauper's grave on the open hillside of the Vatican.

The centuries pass and a kind of reverse historical process occurs. Unlike the great imperial monuments of the capital " Urbs," such as Hadrian's Tomb, which start out as magnificent memorials and then decay; the very opposite happens here. This pauper's grave cut directly into the earth and covered with a few tile grows over the centuries into the splendid memorial of universal recognition. Where once the mad imperial power hoped to exterminate a bothersome sect, that religion now finds its very living center.

I think of the vibrant 58-year-old Pope John Paul II I saw only eight months after his election. We had all been accustomed to a pope more the age of our grandfather; here was a man more like our father. I think of the early visits to Mexico and Poland which drew historic crowds. I think of the attempt to remove this "troublesome cleric" who threatened to free half of Europe. The bullet failed to halt the process; it did proffer the occasion of an incredible act of forgiveness for the man who fired the bullet. We all remember the visits to the United States, in particular the sight of the confident Pontiff at the Golden Gate with the ocean winds furling his robes. The final glimpses of this "Christ-Bearer" show us a man confined to a chair who could not speak; but whose silent testimony was more eloquent than any previous gesture, whose hands rose in blessing for a final act of love.

I watch the incalculable crowds who swirl in the streets, numbers which have never been seen before at any funeral rite in history, and I wander in my mind to those bones, which I held in my hands, of the fisherman turned vicarious shepherd. The words of God addressed to Ezekiel come to mind: "Son of man, can these bones live?" The answer seems clear in the blinding surge of life.