Last Monday, my New Testament class was fortunate enough to get a Scavi Tour, under St. Peter’s Basilica, in the excavation site. This tour is extremely difficult to book, as my teacher had to book it 3 months in advance.
Upon entering, we were able to see what the excavation site would have looked like prior to the church being built on top. Here’s a little history for you:
Simon was renamed Peter by Jesus. As we learned in class “new name, new mission” (this is why the Popes change their name. They select it after a pope or saint that they want their ministry to focus on.). Jesus came up with the name Peter for him, because “Petra” in latin means “rock,” and he is the rock of the church. Peter and Paul went on spreading the Word, until they were put to death, after being arrested. At the time, Christianity was illegal in Rome. Since they were under the Roman empire, they were brought to Rome. Nero, who had set fire to the city in hopes of rebuilding it, blamed the fire on the Christians, to pass the blame away from him, since they were a new group in town, if you will. In Nero’s Circus, there were gladiator fights and other events, and instead of a halftime show, they would kill Christians. Peter was crucified to set an example. He chose to be crucified upside-down, because he felt unfit to be killed in the same way that Jesus had. Nero’s circus was located here:
The green is Nero’s Circus, the gray is St. Peter’s Square/Basilica, with the brown semi-circle in the middle being the altar. Nero’s circus was upon the Vatican Hill (named before the Vatican). It was here that Peter was crucified. At night sometime after his crucifixion, Christians secretly cut him down by his feet and buried him right outside the circus, where some others were buried. For years, people visited this site to kneel and pray to St. Peter, who did not bring the religion to Rome, but rather was the first Pope, appointed by Jesus to build a church. A little structure was soon built over his tomb, so people knew where to go. When Constantine legalized Christianity, he commissioned the building of a few (I forget the exact number) of basilicas in Rome, including the Vatican. Taken from a website to confirm what I was about to say (and I’m too lazy to rephrase it), “He leveled a cemetery on Vatican hill and built a vast martyr basilica on the spot where tradition located the grave of St. Peter the apostle.” So instead of leveling the cemetery by disturbing graves, he filled in dirt over the hill. There was an altar placed over the alleged site. However, until Pope Pius XII, this spot was not confirmed other than a piece of graffiti on a wall that said “Peter is here.” So in 1939, he had the guts to allow excavations to take place to confirm that Peter was, in fact, under the alter. If this failed, this would look really bad, but it was important. Also, since this was during WWII, he only allowed workers to work at night, and they couldn’t use power tools, because it would look sketchy that the vatican was digging underground during that time. They found a tomb, but after analysis of the bones inside, they found the bones of two middle aged women and a rat. Later on, in the 1968ish, an archeologist noticed a piece of the wall that held St. Peter’s tomb was missing, and asked if they knew where it was. It was in a drawer somewhere in the Vatican, and this little piece held the information they needed. St. Peter’s bones were found, or at least the bones that had substantial evidence to be his bones. They were found wrapped in purple cloth with golden threads (symbolizing royalty) and Pope Paul VI, who was pope at the time, declared that there was substantial evidence that it could be St. Peter. It’s never actually been confirmed, but based on the cloth and the DNA analysis that said they were the bones of a 1st century robust man who lived until his 60’s or 70’s (which was VERY uncommon for the time), it’s pretty substantial.
So we went along this scavi tour, walked down the side of the original Constantinian basilica was (they built up from that), saw some pagan mausoleums that were buried along the way, and eventually saw the original structure that marked Peter’s tomb, the original alter that was above his tomb (that the present day altar is on top of), and we walked around to see the hole in the graffiti wall, where Peter’s bones were in a plexiglass box. Pretty cool.
Today, we went to the ending of the Year of Faith mass, declared by Pope Benedict, but fulfilled by Pope Francis. For the first time in history, St. Peter’s relics were on display to the public. We showed up to the square at 6am, and surprisingly, the line wasn’t that long, even when we entered. We got as close as we could to the front- 4th row. We didn’t care about being at a barricade, since this was a mass, and Pope Francis wouldn’t come around on the Popemobile until after the mass. We celebrated mass so close to St. Peter’s relics and the pope.
Check out this article on the mass:
We were given booklets to follow along with mass, but it was just the text of the words that were being spoken- aka in Italian or Latin. However, I was able to understand a lot of what I was hearing, because I was able to read and recognize words! That, and for what I didn’t understand, I often could piece it together with words I did know and put them in context with the mass to figure out what part of the mass they were at.
I have photos from today, but I have not uploaded them yet. However, there are much better photos than the ones I took on that article. We were not allowed to take photos in the scavi tour, so there are none of that.
I’m slightly embarrassed I just found this article, because it literally says everything I just wrote. I swear I found this article afterwards… Anyhow, there are some pictures included from the Scavi tour. The article is written by a father who studied at the NAC (North American College), which I went to for a prayer service and dinner with a few friends. A recent PC grad is studying to be a priest there, and invited us to come. Anyhow, here is the article with photos. If you want to skip over the reading, it just confirms everything I have already said.
So, there ya go. Today I celebrated mass with the first pope and his 265th successor!
It’s not a bad life I have here…