19 November 2013

St Peter's Relics Visited

What with all this talk about venerating St Peter's bones, I thought I might produce a slightly edited version of something I posted before about visiting St Peter's relics.  The edit reflects a change in me since I first wrote about this: my attitude to relics and pious traditions previously was orthodox, but not particularly concerned.  Even though I was perfectly content to accept that in line with the very earliest traditions of the Church, St Peter's had been built over St Peter's grave, and that the remains that had been found were his, this was a sort of highlighting, rather than a necessary part of my faith.  Now I'm not so sure.  St Peter's being buried underneath the high altar of St Peter's, the Rock on which Christ's Church is built has come to add a new dimension to my faith, helped, day's after I returned from the visit, by a priest wondering aloud during a sermon whether (or possibly asserting that) the word for "rock" used by Jesus in Aramaic was the same word used for the Rock on which the Temple was built in Jerusalem.

My faith has become less - linear, I suppose.  I still understand and appreciate dogma and definition: they are a critically important part of understanding what we believe and why.  But to that has been added a greater appreciation of mystery: I am more accepting of the fact that some things simply are, even if we can't rationalise or intellectualise the connections.  St Peter's bones aren't beneath the high altar simply because the Basilica was built over his tomb.  St Peter's bones are beneath the high altar because the Church was built from his tomb.  That makes his bones more, not less important, for as they inspired the evangelisation of the world in the first half of the first century, they can inspire its re-evangelisation.

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 level a platform on the Vatican Hill and place the new 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. This was a normal Roman burial ground, on the surface once upon a time, but buried - and therefore unwittingly preserved - by Constantine when he wanted to build on the site because not even the Emperor could disturb the last resting place of the dead.

 He told us the story of the discovery (or rather the rediscovery) of the Necropolis in 1940, and Pius XII's encouragement of the archaeologists who hoped to find St Peter's grave. He told us about (and later pointed out) the very early shrine to St Peter - the first Church and possibly the burial ground of the first Popes: Linus, Cletus and Clement, perhaps - 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 pilgrimage; and he told us about the incredible mix up of archaeological finds caused by disagreements 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?" as we walked back to our hotel, none of us spoke at all for a couple of hours.

"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.


Patricius said...

Thanks for this account of your visit. You were clearly fortunate in your guide. I visited the "Scavi" in April of this year. Our guide was a Roman lady, an archaeologist whose enthusiasm seemed largely directed towards the pagan necropolis- although we did finally arrive at what was for us the real focus of our visit and see, through the small hole broken through into the tomb, the corner of the perspex boxes holding St Peter's bones. It was moving, too, to be able to see something of the strata of built up altars over the site. There is, as you suggest, a very real sense of the Church having grown from that spot.

Mike Cliffson said...

The church in its thisness; for its better thusness pray we must, with the communion of Saints, which is encouraging.

Anagnostis said...

A beautiful post, Ttony. I don't share its perspective at one level, obviously, but I'm moved and edified nevertheless.

Ttony said...

Anagnostis: I was very careful to say "St Peter's bones are beneath the high altar because the Church was built from his tomb."

These relics, like those of St Paul at (unsurprisingly) St Paul Without The Walls, are where they are for a purpose, not simply for a reason.

Damask Rose said...

Very lovely. Thanks for sharing your trip and experiences. All Hail St Peter!