Tomb of the First Pope: Delving Beneath St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica may seem ancient from a modern perspective, but the basilica that stands today was completed in 1606 AD. Maybe that still seems ancient, but when you consider that St. Peter’s is built on the ruins of a much earlier basilica that was constructed under the rule of Emperor Constantine in 360 AD, it starts to seem much less ancient. Even this original basilica was built on a structure that was considerably more ancient, the tomb of St. Peter. For centuries, the tomb of St. Peter inhabited the realm of legend until in the early 1940s a Vatican-funded archaeological team discovered the remains of St. Peter, and in 1968 Pope Paul VI announced the good news to the public. While in Rome, our class had the opportunity to go on the Scavi tour (Scavi being Italian for “excavation”), which took us down through the dank corridors of an ancient Roman necropolis beneath the basilica to see the final resting place of St. Peter.
We arrived at the Vatican early in the morning, found our tour guide, and headed beneath the basilica. After a brief recap on the history of St. Peter’s Basilica and the necropolis beneath, we went down a cramped stone staircase before getting our first look at the necropolis we had heard so much about. Necropolis is a Greek word that literally means “city of the dead.” St. Peter was buried in this spot long before there was a necropolis, in a simple grave that was meant to conceal his true significance from the many Christian-hating Romans. Honestly, it was amazing to see just how well preserved it all was. We peered into the sepulchers of Roman families that turned to dust long ago, though the engravings etched above them keep their family names alive. Some had beautiful mosaics—one even had subtle Christian imagery though the Romans buried within would have denied such an accusation. I felt deeply for those men and women who had to hide their faith in the hopes of protecting their families, and I was glad to know that in death they had found a way to express this faith in a way that has survived for centuries. Getting to walk through these ancient tombs was certainly extraordinary, but what awaited us even deeper inside the necropolis was the tomb of St. Peter himself.
As we got closer to our final destination, we examined a wall that had hundreds of names etched into it. We were told that these were the names of people who had come to see the Tomb of St. Peter. This seemingly inconspicuous wall held the proof of hundreds of pilgrimages all made in the hopes of communing with the first Pope, St. Peter. This wall held too many stories to count, and there was some deep undeniable connection between these earlier pilgrims and ourselves. We had all made our way to this place, and though we were separated by time, we were brought together by a shared faith in Christ. After such a beautiful encounter, the tomb itself was less of a crescendo than I expected. Certainly, standing in the presence of one of the first saints, not to mention the very first Pope, was incredible, but it was the fellowship I felt with the many other Christians who had made this journey that felt truly special. Maybe that is the true beauty of St. Peter’s final resting place: Peter didn’t want to be glorified—he wanted to bring Christ’s flock together, and even in death he continues to do exactly that.
*While it is difficult to explain the intrigue and archaeological theatrics that surrounded the finding of St. Peter’s remains in a short blog post such as this, I would highly recommend the book The Fisherman’s Tomb which we read as part of our theological coursework last semester. On top of being a great read, this book gave us an incredible amount of knowledge before delving beneath St. Peter’s Basilica ourselves.