25 January 2007

Visiting St Peter

We spent the morning visiting St Peter's Basilica and then went for lunch. We returned, went to the Vatican Post Office to write and send some cards and then asked the Swiss Guards to let us though to visit the Necropolis. I showed our tickets, and they presented arms for us to go through. A large number of tourists thought we were important and took photos of us.

A seminarian from the American College greeted us. He told us the how the Constantine Basilica had been built, how a Roman cemetery had been covered with earth, in order to place his Basilica above St Peter's tomb; how the exact site of the tomb of St Peter had been lost over the ages; how the Basilica we know today had been built, leaving the floor of Constantine's Basilica as the crypt of the modern Basilica.

Then we went down into the Necropolis. He told us the story of the discovery of the Necropolis in 1940, and Pius XII's encouragement of the archaeologists who hoped to find St Peter's grave. He told us of the very early shrine to St Peter - the first Church and burial ground of the first Popes? - which stood on the site. He told us of the archaeologists who got closer and closer to what, a very few years after St Peter's death, was already a site of pilgimage; and he told us about the incredible mix up of archaeological finds caused by diagreements between the priests involved. He told us how St Peter's bones had been found.

Then he took us into the Necropolis. We were in a Roman cemetery. As we moved along the street he showed us the increasing signs - one piece of incredibly fine mosaic, one crude piece of graffiti - which showed that Christians had venerated this spot as St Peter's grave since the earliest times.

His story - the mix of detective story and archaeological dig - began to change as we got closer and closer to the grave itself. He told us the story of how Peter came to Rome to die the death Our Lord had prophesied for him. He told us what we had seen and asked for silence as we went to the chamber where we would see what remained of Peter's body.

In a niche in a wall covered in graffiti from the earliest pilgims to St Peter's grave the transparent plastic boxes in which St Peter's bones are now contained, and which were replaced there in 1968 in the presence of Pope Paul VI are clearly visible. The young man's injunction not to speak was unnecessary. We prayed: in my case as fervently as I can ever remember praying.

We went upstairs into the crypt. None of us spoke for a good while. In fact, apart from the odd "shall we cross here?" none of us spoke at all for a couple of hours.

We don't need shrines; we don't need tombs; we don't need relics: we only need God. But God knows how weak we are and gives us aids to help us towards Him. Any crutch that helps me walk towards God is very welcome indeed: this one has never gone away.

"On this Rock I will build my Church." I have seen the remains of the Rock, and I have seen the Church built on it.


Mac McLernon said...

Lucky lucky you...

...*sigh* and now, no doubt, I shall have to go and confess indulging in terribly jealous thoughts!!

Ttony said...

But imagine if your penance is "Go on a pilgimage to Rome!"