Archaeological Thriller

My guess is that “archaeological” and “thriller” are two words that were rarely linked prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Generations of moviegoers have grown up on Indiana Jones’ exploits, spellbound by his death-defying feats, and enthralled by his (usually) noble sacrifices on behalf of his museum and, more broadly, the entire civilized world.

Yet even with three sequels and a TV spinoff, Jones’ fictional output has not yet changed the assumption that actual archaeology is basically dull.

Maybe so, but I know of at least one exception.

Right around the time that Harrison Ford was supposedly liberating the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, a real-life adventure took place that also featured relics, intrigue, and ancient tombs: The hunt for the final resting place of the Fisherman, the first pope. John Evangelist Walsh wrote a book about it, The Bones of St. Peter (1985), and recently my wife presented me with a reprint as a gift: “I thought you’d enjoy reading it again.” She was right.

The story is plain enough, but reads like a cliffhanger. Longstanding Catholic tradition had always placed the Apostle Peter’s martyrdom and burial on the grounds of the Vatican, with the final resting place of his bones somewhere beneath the basilica’s high altar – a fitting testament to Jesus’ declaration that He would build His church “on this rock (petros).” (MT. 16:18) During renovations to the crypt in 1939, a series of ancient tombs and grave markings were discovered, and Pope Pius XII authorized further investigation.

No doubt, the Holy Father would’ve been cautiously optimistic that the experts would discover Peter’s remains where tradition had always located them, and that there would be enough empirical evidence to make a solid case that went beyond faith and piety. Still, he was willing to take a risk that the science might prove tradition wrong – itself an act of tremendous fortitude.

As the diggers made their way through the underground necropolis, they encountered more and more Christian imagery and graffiti, but they encountered obstacles as well – and not just leaky conduits in the walls. There were personality conflicts and rivalries among the researchers, minor mishaps and major blunders – not to mention the commencement of a world war.

In time, the Apostle’s remains were indeed discovered, and in the very spot tradition had always pointed to – directly beneath the high altar. In 1968, Pope Paul VI announced to the world that the Apostle’s remains had been found.

Of course they were found under the high altar,” the skeptics objected; “Where else would Catholic archaeologists working at the behest of the pope find St. Peter’s bones?” There were plenty of naysayers back then, and scholars continue to squabble over the authenticity of the grave and its contents to this day.

So. Does it matter?

Let me shift gears a bit – to a children’s book, the Newberry classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s a story of runaway siblings that uncover what they think is a secret regarding a controversial Michelangelo statue. Is it a fake? Is it real? Claudia and Jamie think they know, and they seek out Mrs. Frankweiler, the original owner, to confer with her.

In the end, their definitive evidence isn’t so definitive, and even Mrs. Frankweiler’s more solid proof – a sketch of the statue in the artist’s hand – is open to doubt. She tells the children that most scholars will concede the works are genuine, but “some stubborn ones won’t agree,” and thereafter the statue and the sketch will appear in books with a big question mark.

Sensing Frankweiler’s resignation, Claudia probes further and asks why she doesn’t want “the last little bit of doubt cleared up.” You can almost hear the art patron’s heavy sigh and simple justification: “Because I’m eighty-two years old. That’s why.”

Now, back to Peter’s bones: Are they genuine? Is it really his tomb? The evidence is compelling, the pope confirmed it, and I believe it – I have no reason not to.

But would my faith be shaken should new discoveries shift the weight of evidence in the other direction? Would we have to doubt the pope’s authority? Doubt the Church Herself? Don’t we need to know for sure – in Claudia’s words, to have the last little bit of doubt cleared up?

No. Why? Because the Gospel is not about extinguishing doubt. Rather, the Church has another agenda – an agenda of faith, hope, and love. We can’t prove those are Peter’s bones or that Peter was the first pope; we can’t prove apostolic succession or transubstantiation; we can’t prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection. But why would we want to? A faith of mere proof isn’t really faith, and, besides, the Gospel is primarily about love – and you can’t prove love.

You can show it, though, and that’s Peter’s true legacy. After screwing up royally over and over, Peter finally met up with his risen Lord at the seashore. Three times Jesus asked him to confirm his love, and three times the apostle did so, but words were not enough – action was required, ultimate action.

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:15-19).

As Peter tells Jesus (JN. 6:68) elsewhere, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Love invites us to follow as well, bones or no bones. Our own thrilling tale awaits.

Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He lives with his family in South Bend, Indiana.