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.