The Catholic Thing
St. Peter, Lost and Found Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 27 January 2014

It occurred to me as I began reading Thomas J. Craughwell’s new book, St. Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found . . . and Then Lost and Found Again, that true knowledge is ever harder to acquire in the Media Age. There is so much information coming at us that it is very difficult to block out the static and cut through to what may reasonably be called the truth.

Accordingly, I find myself having to reject the study of many subjects that interest me, simply because I know I haven’t time to do them justice. What a pleasure then to have Mr. Craughwell’s succinct survey of the historical, archaeological, and spiritual stories of the post-mortem journey of Catholicism’s first leader.

The book is well timed too, in that Pope Francis decided at the end of the Year of Faith to place the relics of St. Peter on display for all of us. To venerate, we remind our non-Catholic brethren: to be more directly connected to the history of the Church: to its suffering and its triumph.

Peter, especially, it has long seemed to me, is worthy of veneration, because he was so obviously human in ways familiar to all of us, and yet, despite his many failures, he found sanctity through faith in the Master. His legacy is hope – for all of us.

We jump forward in time to the papacy of Pius XII and his decision to renovate the Vatican Grottoes, the catacombs beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. A wrinkle in the story was the pope’s declaration that while archaeological work could proceed in many areas beneath the great church, the area directly under the main altar – where the body of St. Peter was believed to rest – was to remain off-limits.

As excavations began, the archaeologists were rewarded with discovery after discovery, much of it utterly unexpected yet not surprising, given that St. Peter’s sits atop layer upon layer of ancient Roman history stretching back several millennia.

Mr. Craughwell interrupts this narrative of discovery with gems of historical background, such as a glimpse of the Big Fisherman’s death – in agonizing detail – and of the rise of anti-Christian sentiment after the great fire (64 A.D.) that destroyed so much of Rome during Nero’s imperial reign and was the efficient cause of the persecution that killed so many Christians, Peter among them. The author points out that one of the most visible landmarks in St. Peter’s Square, the pink granite obelisk imported from Egypt in 37 A.D., marks one spot in the former Circus of Gaius and Nero – a sight Peter would have seen in the arena on the last day of his life.

But back in those Vatican catacombs, the archaeologists and the sampietrini (Vatican “maintenance” workers who are rather more expert at what they do than your local church janitor) kept making discoveries, including (in 1943) the burial place of one Christian, near which was this inscription: “Peter, pray to Jesus Christ/For the holy/Christian men/Buried near your body.” (Those words, protected by soil for more than 1600 years, have since faded away.)

The pope agreed to amend his prohibition of excavations under the altar, but with the proviso that the way forward now be undertaken with the greatest secrecy. He did not want any announcement that the discovery of Peter’s final resting place was imminent, just in case nothing was subsequently found.

A part of the history that complicated the ongoing dig was the tendency of successive generations to treat of each previous site as worthy of preservation by the expedient of building over it, so that you end with an archaeological version of a Russian matryoshka doll. Opening a wall, the sampietrini would find another wall, and behind it a third, and then a fourth. Oddly, or so it seemed at the time, the closer they actually got to Peter, the fewer references to him were written on sarcophagi walls.

I’ll not dwell here much more on the process or the results, which anyway are known, but along the way there are some utterly intriguing details, almost throw away lines, as for instance when the archaeologists find lying on the floor of a crypt “a coin from the Duchy of Aquitaine in France, minted sometime before 900.”

The treasures of the Vatican are so great that priceless finds are made even in the dust – a coin likely dropped by someone who was moving relics during another renovation more than a thousand years before.

The great hero of this story is actually a heroine, Prof. Margherita Guarducci (1902-1999). Her work in deciphering epigraphy in and around Peter’s tomb provided key evidence that finally allowed the identification of remains found in the tomb as those of Peter, a tale hinted at in Mr. Craughwell’s subtitle – in the lost and found and lost and found again.

Of course, there were doubters at every step along the way: people who questioned not only the archaeology but the theology, the history, the martyrology. And in a field in which the issue of provenance is so essential, such doubts and questions are inevitable. Mr. Craughwell’s book ends with an apposite quote from George Weigel: “Archaeology isn’t algebra; it yields probabilities rather than certainties.”

In the end, all the probabilities lead us to conclude that St. Peter’s bones are exactly where you’d expect them to be.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (3)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, January 27, 2014
Mr Miner,
A great read to start the week,thanks.
written by Jacob, January 27, 2014
Wonderful article!

I especially like the part about the Aquitanian coin!! That should be incorporated into a film somehow (if only Hollywood made decent movies).
written by Layman Tom, January 27, 2014
I love Peter! He was a brash hot-head like myself, yet the lord corrects him several times for it. He was fiercly loyal, the only failure being directly forgiven by the Lord. I love how the Gospel describes his wailing when he realizes his fault giving us the model for contrition.

On top of all that, he's been my "ace in the hole" many times. Growing up Catholic in the East, I never encountered a lot of other faiths. There was us and the Jews. Then, as a child, we moved to the Bible Belt. I was perplexed that nobody seemed to get Catholics. Don't know how many times I was admonished that I was destined for warmer climes because Catholics weren't Christians. Growing up, I realized that the protestants knew the bible better than I did and used it as a club. But it was Peter who got me out of a lot of arguments. I would argue and argue and when it was clear that whomever I was talking to was not going to concede that I was, in fact, Christian, I would ask if they believed that every word of the Bible was fact and should be taken literally. Of course the answer was always an emphatic yes. Good! God called Peter the Rock upon which he would build his church and Peter was the first Pope. Oh no? Why is he burried under the alter at Catholic HQ? You know, "St. PETER's"? So I would challenge them to read a little early church history and viola! Conversation over. I like to think he had an onery side and would appreciate me using him to shut down the less eccumenical of my Christian brethren.

Yes sir, I love Peter and hope he intercedes for those of us who have the same faults he did.

Thanks for the piece Brad!

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author