Sola Scriptura and Sacred Tradition

Bible

This weekend I met with my friend Josh the Baptist, my oldest and dearest Christian friend. Over the years he has not been the most amenable to Catholicism — he once told me, years before either of us had any idea I would end up here, that he didn’t believe Catholicism was Christian. But he has nonetheless been very supportive of my faith and my journey. We picked at some doctrinal and theological points the other night. Both of us realized points where we needed to learn and firm up our arguments. Iron sharpens iron.

I realized talking to him, as I am realizing more and more talking to other Protestants, that one of the fundamental obstacles standing between Catholics and Protestants, if not the fundamental obstacle, is sola scriptura for Protestants and Sacred Tradition for Catholics. For Protestants, Scripture is the sole, exclusive authority for doctrine. Catholics found their doctrine on the union of Scripture and Tradition. Not only is this divergence an obstacle to agreement, it’s even an obstacle to understanding. Protestants are so fixed in the sola scriptura mindset that the very idea of rooting beliefs in Tradition is foreign and incomprehensible. Likewise for Catholics, the idea of rejecting Tradition because it’s not in Scripture seems absurd.

Because Scripture and Tradition are two different vessels for transmitting the deposit of faith — both that which was written down and that which was spoken (2 Thessalonians 2:15 ESV). It makes little sense to a Catholic to reject the oral tradition of the Apostles simply because it was oral tradition. The Gospels themselves were written from testimony that had persisted in oral tradition for at least thirty or forty years. Neither Christ nor the Apostles made any attempt to compose a formal, encyclopedic, or exhaustive compendium or catechism of the Christian faith. The writings that make up our New Testament never purport to be the whole, complete body of Christian Truth — in fact, they admit of themselves that they are not (John 21:25 ESV). The Law of the Old Testament was self-consciously the whole, written legal code of the Hebrews, given to govern their people and their relationship to God. But the New Testament is a scattered collection of various documents, comprised of selective narratives for specific audiences; epistles written to specific recipients to address specific concerns; and an apocalyptic prophecy. We should receive these writings for what they are, and not expect them to be something they are not.

The Protestant argument is that the Holy Spirit preserved for us the sum of what we needed in Scripture. The Catholic argument is that the Holy Spirit preserved for us the sum of what we needed — in Scripture and Tradition. Personally, I find the Catholic argument more palatable and reasonable. As an historian, I highly value primary sources written by the hand of people who experienced an event, but I don’t reject other sources that received information secondarily and then declare that the only knowledge I will accept as true comes from the primary documents. A fair portion of the New Testament documents are actually secondary sources, not written by Apostles (Mark, Luke, Acts, probably Hebrews) but by their followers, who wrote down the testimony and teachings of others as they were passed down to them. (That number is even more, if you consider that Matthew and Luke appear to have used Mark as a source.) Yes, the Holy Spirit guided and inspired the New Testament writers — but just so, we believe that the Holy Spirit guided and protected the passing down of apostolic teachings through Sacred Tradition.

The New Testament never claims to be the sole rule or source of faith. No one prior to Luther attempted to make it so, nor would early Christians have found sola scriptura in any way comprehensible. St. Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) — but neither Paul nor anyone writes that Scripture alone is profitable or acceptable. In fact, just a chapter before, he had said otherwise (2 Timothy 2:1-2 ESV):

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

What Paul is describing is oral tradition, the passing down of sacred teachings from generation to generation by word of mouth. This is the beginning of apostolic succession. Men chosen and approved were ordained to receive the deposit of apostolic teaching; so that by the succession of consecrated bishops, whose lineages could be traced back to the Apostles themselves, the Christian faithful were assured of the integrity, orthodoxy, and wholeness of their faith. As Clement of Rome wrote in ca. 95-96, a mere generation after the Apostles, himself a successor of Peter (1 Clement 42, 44):

Through countryside and city [the Apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.

And St. Irenaeus, a century later, in ca. 180 (Against Heresies, III.3.2):

[We confound the heretics] by indicating that tradition derived from the Apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.

Most Protestants, whether they admit it or not, adhere to some form of extrascriptural tradition. It permeates the entire Church, in all that Christians do and how they do it. The basic order of worship, the singing of hymns following by the reading of Scripture and a sermon, is as old as the Church, but found nowhere in the Bible. The celebration of the Lord’s Day on Sunday, in commemoration of the Resurrection, rather than on the Jewish Sabbath, is a nearly universal Christian tradition (excepting Seventh-Day Adventists and the like), but found nowhere in Scripture. The bare bones of the Church’s liturgical calendar, Easter and Christmas, are observed by nearly all Christians and even most of the secular world, but not mandated by Scripture. Even the canon of Scripture itself, on which sola scriptura depends, cannot be derived from Scripture alone. The canon of the New Testament was hammered out through questioning and disputation by successive Church Fathers and councils over the course of the first three centuries. Likewise, the doctrine of the Trinity, taken for granted by most Christians today, is nowhere laid out plainly in Scripture. It took centuries of theological wrangling by the Fathers and councils, disputation with heretical sects and condemnation of numerous heterodox views, for the orthodox Trinitarian dogma to fully emerge.

More subtly and seriously, the schools of scriptural interpretation which shape the Protestant reading of the Bible, through sola scriptura, are firmly ensconced in tradition. Most Protestants raised up in a particular theological tradition — in Calvinism, or Armininianism, or Lutheranism, or Wesleyanism — tend to adhere to the interpretations that they are taught. They are likely to read and understand the Bible the same way their pastors do, and possibly the same way their fathers and grandfathers did. Protestants appeal to great theologians and exegetes of the past — to the tradition of biblical interpretation having been handed down — all while not recognizing that their Christian understanding is colored and supported by anything but sola scriptura.

Letting go of sola scriptura is probably a significant hurdle for many Catholic converts from Protestantism. It never was for me. I had been reading the Church Fathers for five or six years before I converted. I have admired the traditions of the Church for as long as I can remember. By intellectual training, I have learned to operate in a traditional paradigm, through history and historiography, citing authorities of the past as support for truth. A good year or two before I made any move toward the Church, I found that I had already given up sola scriptura.

The Lonely Pilgrim

And now, the unveiling:

“Catholicus nascens,” I decided, is something of a mouthful, not very communicable or catchy. I was tired of having to write down the URL for friends.

So my blog is now known as “The Lonely Pilgrim.” And I’ve assigned it (and the DNS should have propagated by now) to the domain LonelyPilgrim.com.

There should be redirects and all, so this should be pretty transparent for most folks. This post is for all one or two of my readers who might be confused at the new face.

Early Testimonies to St. Peter’s Ministry in Rome

St. Peter

Peter Paul Rubens. St. Peter. c. 1611. Oil on canvas.

So I’m realizing why the “tomb of st. peter” is such a popular search term. It seems the issue of St. Peter’s presence and ministry in Rome is one of the major points of contention between Catholics and many Protestants (especially those of an anti-Catholic bent). This is somewhat surprising to me. Even as a Protestant, there was never any question in my mind that Peter ministered and died in Rome — perhaps because I’m also an historian. The historical evidence for Peter being in Rome is not just solid; it’s unanimous. Every historical record that speaks to Peter’s later life and death attests that he died in Rome a martyr under the emperor Nero, ca. A.D. 67. No record places the end of his life anywhere else.

The fact that so many people are searching on Peter in Rome tells me that people are hearing conflicting statements and wondering, searching for the truth. The fact that so many Protestants deny it so vehemently, and refute it so absurdly, tells me that they, however basically, realize the power in our claim. They recognize and in effect acknowledge what we have maintained for many centuries: that having the chief of Apostles as our foundation gives the Roman Catholic Church legitimacy and primacy.

Why else would it be so important to refute that St. Peter was here? He was but a man who died nearly 2,000 years ago. If, as Protestants charge, the Catholic Church left its apostolic foundations long ago and drifted over the centuries into corruption, why should it be so significant what those foundations were? Why deny a well-attested historical fact unless it carries some continuing authority? Do they not realize that in attacking the Roman Church’s foundations, they are undermining their own — since we are their Mother Church, too?

The primary reason for this opposition, I suspect, is that in a fundamentalist view, all religious truth must come from Scripture, sola scriptura — and it is not self-evident from Scripture that St. Peter was ever in Rome. This is also the reason why few Protestants seem to dispute that St. Paul was in Rome: because he tells us he was, repeatedly, in his scriptural epistles. Most more thoughtful Protestants realize that there is a difference between religious truth and historical truth, however intertwined the two may sometimes be; and historical sources are valid authorities for historical truth. These tend to be, incidentally, the Protestants least inclined toward anti-Catholicism.

First Epistle of St. Peter

But the Bible can be an historical source, too. And there is actually a significant testimony in the Bible to Peter’s presence in Rome. In the valediction of Peter’s first epistle, he wrote (1 Peter 5:13 ESV):

She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.

Here the Greek grammar is clear: ἀσπάζεται ὑμᾶς (sends greetings to y’all) ἡ ἐν βαβυλῶνι (she who is in/at Babylon) συνεκλεκτὴ (she elected/chosen together) καὶ Μᾶρκος (and also Mark) ὁ υἱός μου (my son). Peter, writing the letter, and therefore sending the greetings, is obviously with “she who is at Babylon,” and also with Mark, “[his] son.” She elected is the Church, always personified as a woman; and Peter is with the Church. But the Church where? The ancient city of Babylon had been in ruins for centuries. Peter must have been speaking in a cryptic metaphor. The Babylon of the Bible was the capital of a vast, powerful empire, and stood at the height of sin and excess. Where else could that be in Peter’s day but Rome?

You don’t have to take my word for it. From the study notes of the well-respected, evangelical ESV Study Bible (which continues to be my personal Bible of choice):

1 Pet. 5:13 She who is at Babylon, who is … chosen almost certainly refers to the church in Rome, not a literal woman (cf. “elect lady,” 2 John 1, 13). Although the Babylon of the OT was in ruins, the reference resonates with the OT, where “Babylon” represents a center of earthly power opposed to God (cf. Isaiah 13–14; Jeremiah 50–51; see also Revelation 17–18), and in Peter’s day that city would be Rome. The language of “Babylon” and “chosen” forms an inclusio (a literary envelope) with the first verse of the book: the OT background to “Babylon” reminds believers that though they are exiles, they are “elect exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1) who will receive the promised inheritance. Mark is the same John Mark who traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (cf. Acts 12:25; 13:5, 13; 15:36–39). Though he left Paul and Barnabas, he was later restored to his former usefulness (Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philem. 24). Peter would have known Mark from the earliest days, because the church met in his mother’s home (Acts 12:12). In addition, this verse shows a close relationship between Peter and Mark (my son) and is one indication of the validity of the early church tradition that Mark wrote his Gospel at Peter’s direction.

Writing under the emperor Nero, Peter would wisely have used discretion in revealing his whereabouts in writing, lest his letter be intercepted by Roman authorities. The symbolism that is transparent to Christians today would not have been so explicit to those not so steeped in the Old Testament or ancient Mesopotamian history.

St. Clement of Rome

Among the earliest surviving testimony outside the Bible is the first letter of Clement (1 Clement), which is usually dated to around 95 or 96 A.D. Clement of Rome, as evident from the letter, was a high official of the Church in Rome, writing in exhortation to the Church at Corinth to settle a division between the established elders and an upstart faction. The Roman Catholic Church today holds St. Clement to have been the third bishop of Rome (i.e. pope); early patristic writers varied in their listings, placing Clement anywhere from second to fourth. His letter is a clear early example of the bishop of Rome exerting authority over other churches.

Regarding St. Peter, St. Clement did not speak to the specifics of Peter’s fate, but wrote (1 Clement 5–6, trans. Kirsopp Lake, in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. I, Loeb Classical Library, London and New York: William Heinemann, 1919):

But, to cease from the examples of old time, let us come to those who contended in the days nearest to us; let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted and contended unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good apostles: Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy suffered not one or two but many trials, and having thus given his testimony (μαρτυρήσας) went to the glorious place which was his due. Through jealousy and strife Paul showed the way to the prize of endurance; seven times he was in bonds, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a herald both in the East and in the West, he gained the noble fame of his faith, he taught righteousness to all the world, and when he had reached the limits of the West he gave his testimony (μαρτυρήσας) before the rulers, and thus passed from the world and was taken up into the Holy Place,―the greatest example of endurance. To these men with their holy lives was gathered a great multitude of the chosen, who were the victims of jealousy and offered among us (ἐν ἡμῖν) the fairest example in their endurance under many indignities and tortures.

Clement was the first writer to place Saints Peter and Paul as a pair, as they have always been in the Roman Church. He showed a clear and personal knowledge of the deaths of both Peter and Paul, and he assumed that his recipients also knew the stories. Most Christians accept that Paul was martyred in Rome; it is not a far stretch to assume from Clement’s pairing of the two Apostles that he also believed Peter to have died in Rome. In fact, his grammar is revealing: Peter and Paul offered their example—their martyrdom—“among us” (ἐν ἡμῖν)—that is, among the Romans. Clement was consistent throughout his letter in the use of the pronouns ὑμεῖς (you, i.e. Corinthians) and ἡμεῖς (we, us, i.e. Romans).

St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his Epistle to the Romans, dated between 98 and 117, written en route to his martyrdom at Rome, referenced the Saints Peter and Paul (Epistle to the Romans IV):

I do not enjoin you in the manner of Peter and Paul. They were Apostles; I am a condemned man. They were free; I, until this moment, am a slave.

Again he placed Peter and Paul as a pair, and implied that the Romans have had personal contact with the Apostles, who enjoined them with authority.

St. Irenaeus of Lugdunum (Lyon)

St. Irenaeus, writing ca. 180, is the earliest extant writer I’ve found that stated directly that Peter ministered in Rome (Against Heresies III.1.1):

For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.

And again (Against Heresies, III.3.1-2):

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; . . . [We refute the heretics] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

Here we have, clearly stated, not only the statement that Saints Peter and Paul built the Church at Rome—not that they were the first Christian missionaries there, but that by their apostolic ministry they laid its foundations—but also, Irenaeus affirmed the doctrines of Apostolic succession and Petrine primacy, unequivocally and authoritatively, at a date earlier than many Protestants would like to recognize. What is more, St. Irenaeus was not a partisan of the Church at Rome, but the Greek-born bishop of Lugdunum (today the city of Lyon in France). In the face of the growing threat of Gnosticism, the unity of the Church and the authority of Rome were more important than ever.

Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria, who wrote between ca. 190 and 215, made several references to Peter’s ministry in Rome, especially as it pertained to the ministry of St. Mark, founder of the Church at Alexandria. Some of these references survive only in fragments. The first, from Clement’s Commentary on the First Epistle of Peter, which survives only in the Latin translation of Cassiodorus:

Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter publicly preached the Gospel at Rome before some of Caesar’s equites, and adduced many testimonies to Christ, in order that thereby they might be able to commit to memory what was spoken, of what was spoken by Peter, wrote entirely what is called the Gospel according to Mark.

The Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the 290s, cited Clement’s lost Hypotyposes, as well as the testimony of Papias of Hierapolis, also otherwise lost, further attesting that Mark wrote his Gospel from the teachings of Peter at Rome (Church History II.15.2).

Tertullian

Tertullian, writing probably ca. 180-200, attested to Peter’s and Paul’s ministry and martyrdom in Rome in a passage from De praescriptionem haereticorum (Prescription against Heretics 36). Like Irenaeus, he appealed to the apostolic foundations of the orthodox churches:

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the Apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the Apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. . . . Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority [of Apostles themselves]. How happy is its church, on which Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!

Eusebius of Caesarea

Eusebius, compiling his Church History in the 290s, firmly stated the well-established tradition of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (Church History II.25.5):

Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, [Nero] was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.

Eusebius cited as testimony earlier writers, and thus preserved a number of valuable fragments of works no longer extant. Among them is the previously discussed quotation which attests to the presence of Peter’s grave monument on Vatican Hill in ca. 210 (II.25.6–7):

It is confirmed likewise by Gaius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. He, in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid apostles are laid: ‘But I can show the trophies of the Apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.’

Finally, Eusebius preserved a document from Dionysius of Corinth, Bishop of Corinth in 171, attesting that both Peter and Paul had ministered in Corinth before going to Rome, and that they had died in Rome at the same time (i.e. under the same persecution) (II.25.8):

And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: ‘You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.’ I have quoted these things in order that the truth of the history might be still more confirmed.

This carries the documentary record of the ministry and martyrdom of St. Peter in Rome to the end of the third century. His presence there is suggested even by the Apostle himself in 1 Peter. His martyrdom there is attested to arguably as early as 95 or 96 by St. Clement, within thirty years of Peter’s death. It certainly is strongly attested by St. Irenaeus in ca. 180, after only little more than a century. Voices from all around the Mediterranean world affirm Peter’s residence in Rome, as well as Rome’s primacy.

No other writer or record places the end of Peter’s life anywhere but Rome. The majority of the earliest testimonies to the Early Church attest to it, and for nearly 1500 years, Peter’s apostolic ministry in Rome was universally accepted and unquestioned throughout the Church. As the Catholic Encyclopedia announced confidently, “St. Peter’s residence and death in Rome are established beyond contention as historical facts.”

Christ-centric, not Man-centric

Mass

One of the many things I love about Catholicism is that in our liturgy, in our worship, in our Sacraments, the focus is on Christ, not on the man at the front of the church.

In evangelical Christianity especially, there’s such a tendency to build up a cult of personality around a popular and well-liked preacher, and have that person be the reason one comes to or remains in a church; for one to leave the church when the pastor leaves, or go to a new church because they don’t “like” the new guy’s preaching or style. Now, I have to tread lightly here: because I know that Catholics can be just as guilty of this kind of thinking. Maybe I am drawing a false distinction here. But I do believe there is an essential difference.

In evangelical churches, the focus is so much on the preacher or pastor — on his preaching, on his teaching, on his leadership. Because personal preaching and teaching — sermons — are the highlight, the greater part of a Protestant service. One of the main reasons people go to church is to hear the sermon.

On the other hand, at a Catholic Mass, no one claims that the priest’s homily is the highlight of the Mass or the reason why ones goes. The homily, though it may be insightful and edifying, is merely an exposition and commentary on the Scripture readings. The highlight of the Mass is the Eucharist — the sacrifice of Christ for all of humanity, the presentation of His Body and Blood to the Father, the sharing of Communion with Him and with all of His people. The focus is on the liturgy (λειτουργία, leitourgia, public service) — not just the actions of the priest before God, but the participation of all the people. The words of the liturgy are powerful and efficacious in themselves; it is not the priest in himself who makes them so.* No matter where I go, no matter who is celebrating the Mass, no matter if I personally like the man, it is the same Mass. Because Catholics believe that the priest who ministers the Sacrament steps aside completely, that he ministers in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. He fades from the scene so that it is actually Christ before us who ministers.

* It does have to be a priest who says them!

Now, there is a fine distinction here. We Catholics can certainly like our pastors and find their leadership and teaching and personality important! In more concentrated dioceses, I am sure there is a tendency for some to pick a parish based on whether one likes the priest there. There is also a tendency in some dioceses, I gather, to diminish the role of the priest as the shepherd of his flock, and to shuffle around a priest between parishes often as if the connections he makes are not important. They are. But my point is this, that the priest is not the parish; he is not the center of gravity. The center is Christ, much more than I’ve experienced in evangelical churches.

The Bones of St. Peter

This should be the conclusion of my three-parter on the Tomb of St. Peter at St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican, in which I hope to discuss the discovery of St. Peter’s relics and the issue of their authenticity. Also, a bibliography! Previously, “The Tomb of St. Peter,” “The Grave of St. Peter.


Red Wall bones

The bones found beneath the Red Wall (briefly replaced there for the photograph). (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

The bones the Vatican archaeologists had discovered in 1942, in the niche at the foundation of the Red Wall, to one side of St. Peter’s grave, remained safely locked in lead-lined chests in the private chambers of the pope for over a decade. Only a cursory examination had been given to them by the pope’s private physician, who declared that they were the bones of a man in his seventies — the age Peter was expected to have been at his martyrdom. The pope had made only a brief, uncertain announcement concerning the bones in 1950. The hungry press, a curious academia, and the anxious Church widely wondered about their authenticity, and the frustration only built at the Vatican’s reticence and characteristic slowness.

Finally, in 1956, at the request of Pope Pius XII, Venerando Correnti, a leading anthropologist and professor at Palermo University, examined the Red Wall bones. Correnti’s meticulous examination and testing took over four years. In the end, his findings were disappointing: these were almost certainly not the bones of Peter. The pile contained the bones of as many as four individuals: two men in their fifties, a man in his forties, and an elderly woman in her seventies, as well as an assortment of animal bones. The animal bones were not a great surprise: the ancient necropolis was known to have been near the emperor Nero’s circus and stables, and discarded animal carcasses may have left their bones strewn all throughout the area.

The bones that had been the objects of hope for over a decade — the bones found in, or at least to the side of, St. Peter’s grave — were not the saint’s relics at all. But that is not the end of the story. Another set of bones had been discovered at the site, that Correnti now prepared to examine.


Graffiti wall

The Graffiti Wall, on the north side of the Tropaion, showing the repository. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Unknown to the archaeologists at the time, there had been a serious blunder early in the excavation. Early in 1942, when the team had first discovered the Graffiti Wall at the north side of the Tropaion, with its curious marble receptacle slightly exposed, they had initially chosen not to disturb it, wishing to fully photograph and document the valuable graffiti before risking damage to the plaster by reaching into the hole. When they finally did examine it, they found nothing inside but a medieval coin, some bone fragments, and other debris.

But by the time they got to it, the receptacle had already been tampered with. Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, the administrator of St. Peter’s Basilica and nominal head of the investigation, had a habit of inspecting the excavations alone at night after the archaeologists had left. Kaas was not an archaeologist himself, and had little appreciation for proper archaeological procedure. Troubled by possible disrespect to the bones of saints, as unknown graves and bones were uncovered in the course of the investigation and set aside, Kaas would remove these bones and place them respectfully in boxes.

Pallia diagram

In this diagram of the Niche of the Pallia and the surrounding tomb, the Graffiti Wall is labeled Wall g. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Late one night within a couple of days of the Graffiti Wall being exposed, Kaas examined it and its receptacle. He brought with him Giovanni Segoni, one of the foreman of the Sampietrini, the skilled workmen charged with the care of St. Peter’s Basilica, who had been assisting in the excavations. At Kaas’s direction, Segoni widened the hole in the plaster and removed the contents of the repository: a considerable pile of human bones with some shreds of reddish cloth. Segoni placed these in a wooden box, sealed it, and labeled it. The box would remain in a storeroom throughout the remainder of the excavation, unknown to any of the archaeologists.

In 1952, when Dr. Margherita Guarducci was examining the graffiti of the Graffiti Wall, she encountered Segoni by chance. She inquired about the contents of the receptacle and learned that he had emptied it himself, and he led her to the box. Not realizing that the archaeologists were unaware of Kaas’s actions, Guarducci was surprised by the size and extent of the bones, and even more so by what she believed was a failure on the part of the archaeologists to document them and consider their importance. It was not until more than a decade later, when Guarducci discussed the matter with Kirschbaum and the other archaeologists, that all realized what had happened.

But Guarducci placed the neglected bones in the queue for Correnti to examine. Preoccupied for so long with the disarrayed pile of Red Wall bones, Correnti did not get to the Graffiti Wall bones until 1962. Fully expecting this to be another collection of mixed bones, he was surprised by his unexpected findings: they were the remains of one elderly man, between sixty and seventy years old, of sturdy build. There were two other puzzling aspects: the bones were encrusted with soil in their crevices and hollows, as if buried and exhumed; and a number of the larger bones appeared to have been stained with a reddish or purplish dye, the color of the shreds of fabric discovered in the box. Sometime after the decay of the flesh, the bones had been dug up from a grave and wrapped in a purplish cloth.


Graffiti Wall Repository

The inside of the Graffiti Wall repository. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

It was Guarducci who, learning of Correnti’s findings, developed the theory that the Graffiti Wall bones might be the bones of St. Peter himself. But why would Peter’s bones be in the marble repository of the Graffiti Wall, and not in the central grave? What was the purpose of the repository? It might have been, Guarducci reasoned, a hiding place, a container for the bones’ safekeeping and protection from Roman persecutors and vandals. At the time of the Graffiti Wall’s construction in the mid-third century, Christianity was under the most aggressive persecution it had suffered in decades, under the emperors Decius and Valerian. Might the Church have felt the bones were threatened?

A closer examination of the scraps of cloth discovered with the bones brought a stunning revelation: it was a cloth dyed what appeared to be purple, and interwoven with pure gold thread of the finest craftsmanship. The dye used, upon chemical testing, proved to be the authentic Roman purpling agent, reserved for royalty.

Peter's bones

A sampling of the bones believed to be those of St. Peter. These are the carpals and metacarpals of the left hand. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

And the dirt encrusted on the bones — could it reveal where the bones had been before? Testing the soil composition of the central grave, the outer courtyard, and the area around the Graffiti Wall, the soil on the bones was a perfect match for the soil in the central grave, quite distinct from the soil in the other locations. These bones appeared to have been at one time buried in the central grave.

But hadn’t the repository been opened in the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the medieval coin discovered inside? A careful disassembly of the Graffiti Wall by the archaeologists revealed that the receptacle had in fact been intact since its construction, and was only cracked open by the archaeologists’ recent excavations (with sledgehammers). While taking it apart, a number of other coins fell out from the wall’s crevices; they reasoned that the medieval coin had fallen into the repository through these cracks. The remains of a dead mouse were also discovered inside, who must have entered somehow — verifying the possibility that small items might have entered the repository without breaching it.

Petros Fragment

The Petros Fragment from the Red Wall, discovered inside the repository. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Another fact that had been overlooked, seemingly irrelevant when the repository was thought to have been empty: the fragment of the Red Wall bearing the “Petros eni” (“Peter is inside”) inscription had been discovered inside the repository, jarred loose from a position on the Red Wall where the Graffiti Wall met it and covered it. Perhaps the placement of the inscription was related to the repository. Perhaps, in fact, the words had been hastily scratched just as the wall was being sealed with the bones inside.

Lateran Reliquaries

The reliquaries in the ciborium of St. John Lateran, of the heads of St. Peter (right) and St. Paul (left).

And what of the other relics held by the Church to belong to St. Peter? The Basilica of St. John Lateran holds in its reliquaries what are believed to be the heads of Peter and Paul. The last time the Lateran reliquaries had been opened was 1804, when it was observed that only fragments remained of the heads. At least one fragment of a skull had been found with the Graffiti Wall bones — would this conflict with the remains of the Lateran skull? With the permission of Pope Paul VI, the Lateran reliquary was opened and Correnti was allowed to examine its contents. The one condition was that he could not report detailed information about the Lateran relic, for the sake of its veneration; he could only state whether or not it in any way conflicted with or contradicted the Graffiti Wall bones. After several months of careful study, Correnti announced unequivocally that the two sets of bones were consistent with each other.

Bones in repository

The supposed relics of St. Peter returned to their repository in the Graffiti Wall. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

On June 26, 1968, Pope Paul announced to the world that the relics of St. Peter had been discovered and identified. Not every question had been answered, but the pope himself was convinced. When all examinations were complete, the researchers carefully placed the bones in nineteen clear, padded plastic containers, and with a brief ceremony, returned them to their resting place in marble repository of the Graffiti Wall.



My feelings about whether these Graffiti Wall bones are the true relics of St. Peter have been wavering back and forth. Some points for consideration:

  1. This is almost certainly St. Peter’s grave (see my reasoning). At the time the Church turned the tomb over to Constantine, its leaders clearly believed the grave was intact and the relics still there, as did Constantine himself. But why weren’t these bones in the grave itself? If the Graffiti Wall bones are Peter’s, did the leaders of the fourth century Church remember they were there?
  2. The Graffiti Wall repository was built for a reason, and apparently built to be hidden. If not a hiding place for Peter’s bones, then whose? Other people had been buried close to Peter — but who else might have warranted a burial in Peter’s Tropaion itself?
  3. Following the decay of the flesh from these bones, the bones had been exhumed from the earth, as evidenced by the earth encrusted on them. They were then wrapped with a purple cloth, as shown by the dye stains on the bones themselves. Clearly these bones were transferred from their original grave and placed in the wall repository. And the earth on the bones is consistent with the earth of the central grave.
  4. The cloth that wrapped the bones was sumptuous, of the richest royal purple and interwoven with delicate gold thread. It is doubtless these bones belonged to a greatly venerated individual.
  5. The Graffiti Wall and its repository are believed to have been constructed in the mid-third century, probably the decade between 250 and 260. The repository was then sealed, and not exposed until the excavations of the 1940s. So these bones must belong to someone who died in the first three centuries. No carbon dating was performed on the bones out of a reluctance to destroy any piece of the relics, and a decision that it would not reveal any more precise date than could be reckoned by the above logic.
  6. The “Petros eni” fragment was in the section of the Red Wall that was covered up by the Graffiti Wall and its repository. Could the marking refer to the resository — Peter is inside here? Was it marked as the wall was being sealed?
  7. St. Peter's Skeleton

    The surviving parts (shaded) of the skeleton believed to be St. Peter’s. Anatomically, about one half of the skeleton survives; by volume, about one third. (Walsh)

  8. The bones belong to an elderly male, probably between the ages of sixty and seventy, of a sturdy build. This is consistent with the facts known of St. Peter, who is believed to have been martyred between 63 and 67.
  9. The surviving skeleton, including a fragment of the skull and jawbone, were deemed not to conflict in any way with the skull and jaw fragments believed to reside in the Lateran reliquary.
  10. Also very curiously, every part of the skeleton is represented by the bones but the feet, which are both absent in their entirety. Conceivably this could be a product of Peter having been crucified upside down: for an easy and hasty removal from the cross, the body might have been hacked off above the ankle.
  11. At the time Constantine built his memoria encasing the tomb and St. Peter’s Basilica around it, he chose to preserve it exactly as it was, including the asymmetrical and unaesthetic Graffiti Wall, which forced the memoria to be slightly lopsided in shape (and the Niche of the Pallia continues to be to this day). Why was this part of the monument kept despite its unattractiveness? Did the Church insist on its retention, knowing it contained the relics?

At the moment, I’m leaning toward these bones being the genuine relics of St. Peter. This certainly isn’t a conclusive case. It, like so much, has to be a matter of faith for the faithful — and it’s certainly not an essential point of faith for anyone. I am reassured by the thought that this is certainly the grave of Peter, in which his earthly body decayed, and in which his dust lies, whether these are his bones or not. The magnificent church of St. Peter’s Basilica, the central church of Roman Catholic Christianity, if not all of Christendom, stands over the grave of the Prince of Apostles.


Bibliography

Books

  • Walsh, John Evangelist. The Bones of St. Peter. New York: Doubleday, 1982. The first book I read on the subject. A riveting and detailed narrative and great introduction to the excavations and to the question of Peter’s bones, and the most up-to-date publication. Full text available online (but missing many of the helpful diagrams, I think).
  • Kirschbaum, Engelbert, S.J. The Tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1959. A more detailed and technical account of the excavations by one of the leading excavators himself. More satisfying and informative from a technical standpoint than Walsh, which helped me in some questions I still had in visualizing the excavation.
  • Toynbee, Jocelyn, and John Ward Perkins. The Shrine of St. Peter, and the Vatican Excavations. New York: Pantheon, 1957. I’ve just started reading this one. But Toynbee and Ward Perkins are two very well-known names in both history and archaeology, and this book is frequently referenced in the other two books. I understand that they, as outsiders, had a more critical approach to the excavations.
  • Margherita Guarducci. The Tomb of St Peter. Hawthorn Books, 1960. I haven’t read this one yet, but I look forward to Guarducci’s account. It’s also available online.

Websites

There are extensive bibliographies to additional books, articles, and other publications in the books, especially Walsh. In fact, here you go. That should lead you to most everything that’s out there — though it’s possible there have been publications since 1982.

The Grave of St. Peter

Last time, I gave a brief history of the tomb of St. Peter on the Vatican, and of the excavations in the 1940s that uncovered the ancient pagan necropolis beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. I left the matter of the excavation of the tomb itself for this post — which is bound to be a little more technical.


Altar Scavi

A simplified plan of the lower level of the basilica, in relation high altar above (marked by the rectangle), the Clementine Chapel, the Confessio, and the Grottoes. (Walsh)

Clementine rear wall

The rear of the Clementine Chapel, after the brick wall and altar decorations had been removed. The marble visible is the rear of Constantine’s memoria. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

When the excavation team at last made the decision to investigate what lay beneath the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, the immediate question was how to get at it. The archaeologists had been instructed by the pope not to disrupt the daily functioning of St. Peter’s as a church in any way — so they could not exactly dig into the altar itself, nor approach from the Niche of the Pallia in the confessio, which was visible from above and a site of pilgrimage.

The Clementine Chapel lay on the west side of the altar. Behind the chapel’s rear (east) wall should have been the area immediately under the altar. Removing the brick wall, the archaeologists discovered a wall of ancient, white marble, with a narrow strip of porphyry in the center — the rear side of Constantine’s memoria, they later realized. At the top could be seen the twelfth century high altar of Pope Callixtus II, upon which is built the present altar.

Prying loose the strip of porphyry, the excavators first saw the ancient Red Wall. Breaking a small hole in the wall, they spotted the shell of another, older altar above, nestled in Callixtus’s: the altar of Gregory the Great. Unwilling to damage the wall further, they decided to search for a way to approach the altar shrine from the north or south.

Behind the side walls of the chapel, the archaeologists discovered two narrow passageways leading to closet-sized spaces on either side of the shrine (the open spaces within the circular crypt in the diagram above).

Tropaion south side

The south side of the Tropaion. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Entering the southern space, they attempted to break through the wall of the shrine from this south. Here the team caught their first glimpse of Peter’s Tropaion: a thick slab of travertine extending from the Red Wall, its edge resting on a small marble column; it all being packed in tightly with mortar and brick.

Approaching next from the north side in the same way, they discovered a much thicker wall, covered with a facing of plaster. This wall was scratched with layers upon layers of graffiti, intertwining and crossing each other and jumbled together. Visible were many examples of the labarum, the chi-rho monogram of Christ, which Constantine had adopted as his standard following a vision of Christ at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312.

Graffiti wall

The Graffiti Wall, on the north side of the Tropaion, showing the repository. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Near the bottom of the Graffiti Wall, a narrow strip of plaster had fallen, revealing a marble-lined receptacle within the wall. At that time, the archaeologists were unwilling to damage the valuable graffiti by enlarging the hole, so they left the cavity alone, deciding instead to continue investigation on the Red Wall, the edges of which were now visible through the holes they had made to the north and the south of the shrine.

Pallia diagram

The Niche of the Pallia, as it resides within the elements of the tomb’s masonry. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Having approached the shrine from the west, south, and north, the group opted to examine it from the Niche of the Pallia on the east side. This they did at night after the basilica had closed its doors. Though unable to probe deeply without damaging the niche’s ancient mosaic, the view confirmed their findings so far. They noted that the travertine slab resting on the column, now broken, had once been a solid piece. Englebert Kirschbaum, S.J., one of the archaeologists, described their night sessions as “unforgettable not so much because of surprising discoveries . . . but on account of the enchantment radiating from the basilica at night time” (Kirschbaum 77).

Tropaion

A reconstruction of the Tropaion and grave, before additions, ca. 200. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Finally, the archaeologists made the decision to explore beneath the Tropaion, by digging under the Graffiti Wall on the north side. Before they did, they investigated the marble receptacle, widening the hole in the plaster and examining inside: it was empty, save for a few bone fragments, a medieval coin, and other debris.

Digging under the graffiti wall, the archaeologists first encountered a simple slab grave dating to the fourth century — one of many graves in the area, apparently of those desiring to be buried close to the martyr. Deeper, at the foundation of the wall, they struck a grave dating to the late first century. Here they decided to breach the foundation of the wall itself to see what lay behind.

Peter's grave

The interior of the grave beneath the Tropaion, from north side looking south. On the south wall are the remains of the two retaining walls. The closure slab can be seen overhead. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Removing the bricks of the foundation opened upon a hollow space. Kirschbaum, the smallest of the excavators, crawled through the opening. Overhead, the ceiling was a marble slab apparently removed from one of the nearby pagan tombs to cover the space, slanted at an angle slightly askew from the rest of the monument. The dirt floor was littered with ancient coins, dating as far back as Imperial Rome. (An opening had been left in the tomb cover, and a shaft down from the high altar, through which pilgrims could drop offerings or pour libations.) The north wall of the chamber showed the remains of two low walls, in line with the slab above, that had been built to retain the sides of the space as the ground of the cemetery was built up around it. To the east was the wall of another grave, placed so close as to nearly breach into it. Hanging from above in one corner was the lower part of a small marble column, the twin to the one seen standing from the south, supporting the now-broken travertine slab — perhaps evidences of the sack of the basilica by Saracens in 846. To the west was the Red Wall, with a curious, rough cavity in its foundation. Kirschbaum was in the space immediately below the Tropaion. This was the central grave: this was the grave of St. Peter.

Red Wall bones

The bones found beneath the Red Wall (briefly replaced there for the photograph). (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Feeling within the niche in the foundations of the Red Wall, Kirschbaum discovered bones: not in the grave itself, but in one side of it. These he carefully handed out to his colleagues. Solemnly, the team would later present their find to Pope Pius. Despite their academic bearing, it was difficult for the archaeologists not to presume these might be the bones of St. Peter.

This was 1942. A cursory examination by the pope’s physician declared the bones to be those of a man in his seventies, strongly built. The bones would reside for years in lead boxes in the pope’s private chambers. They would not be carefully examined by a forensic expert until 1956. During the intervening years, in 1949, the press would seize upon the rumor that the bones of St. Peter had been discovered. A year later, Pope Pius announced publicly that the tomb of St. Peter had been definitively discovered, and that bones had been found, their identity unconfirmed.


Apse graveyards layout

The reconstructed layout of the necropolis graveyards in relation to the apse of Constantine’s basilica. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

The archaeologists would continue their excavation for another seven years, until 1950. They carefully examined and reconstructed the Tropaion and its central grave, as well as the many graves in the surrounding area, and their connection to the necropolis beneath. The courtyard that contained the Red Wall and Tropaion, called Graveyard P, was elevated from the other parts of the necropolis on account of the slope of the hill. Behind the Red Wall, an alleyway, called the Clivus, sloped down from another area of graves and passed two other tomb chambers.

Graveyard P

Layout of graves in Graveyard P. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Graveyard P had a long history of burials, graves layered upon each other, with the ground of the area built up on a number of occasions. But the central grave, which the excavators dated to the second half of the first century, was always carefully maintained and preserved. A number of graves appeared to have been placed with the intention of being as close as possible to the central grave — perhaps these were successive popes? Eventually, in the mid-second century, the Red Wall and Clivus were built, and the Tropaion, extending from the Red Wall, was erected over the central grave.

Kirschbaum, writing in 1957, called this grave “the grave with the richest tradition in Western Christianity.” In recounting the tomb’s “historical evolution,” he noted that the very notion ran counter to the idea of a grave (Kirschbaum 120-121):

Normally, graves have no history, not even the history of their development. If graves have any history, it is the story of their decay. They are not living beings capable of growth from small beginnings to stature and strength. Graves are true symbols of death. Like the bodies they conceal, they can only crumble. Their zenith is at the start, what comes after is disintegration. This is true not only of the modest graves of ordinary mortals which barely last for two or three generations, it is true also of the world’s proudest funerary monuments, the royal pyramids of Egypt or the gigantic mausoleums of Imperial Rome. True, they have endured thousands of years but in gradual decay. All that remains is a dreadful shadow of their one-time magnificence.

“Few graves on earth have transcended this interior rhythm of death and disintegration. And these are not the tombs of the mighty ones of the earth but those of the saints, who even after their deaths live on in the world with a mysterious effectiveness. Among them, this apostolic grave with its remarkable and mysterious power and influence that develops throughout the centuries.

Certainly, the veneration shown to this grave, from the very day of its inception, marked it as the resting place of someone of particular importance to the community who buried its occupant — a martyr or a saint. The Christian community in Rome would not have so venerated a grave, from such an early date, if they had not known for certain that it was the grave of their Apostle and Bishop — if they had not obtained the body following Peter’s crucifixion and buried it themselves. Neither would they have lost, forgotten, or neglected it, and clearly they did not. The Church in Rome held this to be the grave of St. Peter from the time of his death; they cared for and no doubt visited the site, and yet maintained its secrecy from Roman officials throughout the centuries of persecution. When they built the Tripaion between 150 and 167, they fashioned it in the form of a pagan funerary monument, the aedicula, which commonly featured a niche or alcove for urn burials. This aedicula, however, stood over an inhumation grave, at a time when only Christians inhumed their dead.

Petros Fragment

The Petros Fragment from the Red Wall. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

Is there any other physical evidence marking this tomb as Peter’s? The archaeologists discovered one item in particular, a fragment of the Red Wall that had broken off, on which they found a Greek inscription, hastily scratched in the plaster. It appears to read ΠΕΤΡΟΣ ΕΝΙ: Peter is within.

In May 1952, Pope Pius invited Dr. Margherita Guarducci, a professor of Greek epigraphy at the University of Rome, to visit the Scavi and attempt to decipher some of the more arcane and illegible inscriptions. In particular there was a graffito on the wall of one of the pagan tombs, possibly scrawled by one of Constantine’s workmen, that referenced Peter. The early excavators had been unable to read it completely. Dr. Guarducci soon reconstructed the words: PETRUS ROGA CHRISTUS JESU PRO SANCTIS HOMINIBUS CRESTIANUS AD CORPUS TUUM SEPULTIS (Peter pray Christ Jesus for the holy Christian men buried near your body).

Peter monogram

An example of a monograph Guarducci found to represent Peter.

Regarding the Graffiti Wall, the excavators had initially been disappointed not to find the name of Peter inscribed anywhere on it. Even the name of Christ was marked only in labara. Dr. Guarducci was troubled by the tangled, overlapping, seemingly random markings that covered much of the wall. Finally, after months of poring over the inscriptions, she saw it: a cryptographic code, with every overlapping of letters relevant to the relationships between names and ideas, and monograms used to represent the names of God, Christ, and Mary. And at last, the name of Peter, in the form of monograms connecting Greek rho (Ρ), which resembles a Roman P, and E. (The form I’ve copied to the left can also double as a representation of a key, one of Peter’s attributes.)

With the combined weight of all of these factors — the dating of the grave to the late first century and the monument to the mid-second century; the evidence of continued veneration of the grave since its placement; the later graves crowded around the central grave; the early inscriptions indicating the presence of Peter’s body; both the tradition and the documentary testimony placing Peter’s gravesite on the Vatican; the construction of the Tropaion over the grave and eventually St. Peter’s Basilica itself — I consider it a virtual certainty that this is in fact the grave of the Apostle Peter.


Well, I didn’t get done this time, either. I guess there is a lot to share! Next time, the discovery of the relics of St. Peter, and a discussion of their authenticity. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion, “The Bones of St. Peter.”

All photographs and diagrams are © Fabbrica di San Pietro, and appear in Engelbert Kirschbaum, S.J., The Tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1959). Another source for much of this material is John Evangelist Walsh, The Bones of St. Peter (New York: Doubleday, 1982).

The Tomb of St. Peter

Statue of St. Peter

Giuseppe De Fabris. Statue of St. Peter (1840). St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City. (saintpetersbasilica.org)

Nearly every day, consistently, the top-ranking search term for my blog is “tomb of st. peter” or some variant. Every day, this post, about my pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Paul, attracts at least several hits in search of St. Peter, despite only mentioning him in passing (to a relic of St. Peter, his head, being at the Lateran). Clearly there is a great deal of demand for the relics of the Prince of Apostles. I have heard my readers’ cry, and decided to give them what they wanted.

As it happens, this is a topic that fascinates me, too. It combines so many of my favorite things: saints, cemeteries, the Church, ancient Rome, archaeology, and history. I had never studied much about the search for St. Peter’s relics, but it was something I had been wanting to pursue for a long time — since I had stood there at the high altar of St. Peter’s, in fact.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome (Google Earth)

At that time, in 2005, I was something of a skeptic, not yet a searcher. The tomb of St. Paul had been so powerful to me because I had read about the recent archaeological findings. I had faith that Paul was really there. When I got to St. Peter’s however, I knew nothing about the extensive archaeology that had been done beneath the basilica or the provenance of the relics discovered there. I didn’t even understand where exactly the relics were; and I didn’t speak Italian and couldn’t ask. So when I stood there at the altar, peering down into the confessio, I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at.

Confessio of St. Peter's

Confessio of St. Peter’s. (saintpetersbasilica.org)

What I was looking at was the confessio, the chamber leading down to the tomb. Only those with permission (usually clergy) are allowed to go down these steps, to pray as close as possible to the body of the saint. The niche at the end of the confessio, immediately below the altar, is called the Niche of the Pallia. When in Rome, I thought the silver coffer under the ancient Christ mosaic might contain St. Peter’s bones — but this is actually the chest that contains the pallia, the wool bands which the pope presents to metropolitan bishops as a symbol of delegated authority. The night before the pallium ceremony, the vestments are placed here overnight, that St. Peter, chief of all bishops, might bless them.

The niche had been here, like so, for centuries, longer than anyone could remember. Even before that, there had been generations of successive popes who had remodeled the altar area. The tradition had always been, since time immemorial, that St. Peter was buried beneath the high altar — but it had been ages since anyone had laid eyes on the tomb, and no one knew exactly what was down there.


In 1939, following the death of Pope Pius XI, the Vatican had decided to expand the Grottoes under the basilica in preparation for the pope’s burial. To make room for the additions, they needed to lower the floor. As soon as workmen started digging, they began uncovering marble sarcophagi — burials that over the ages had been lowered through the floor (which had been at the level of the original floor of Old St. Peter’s). This wasn’t cause for particular concern; they set them aside. But then, within a few months of beginning work they struck something — masonry. Old masonry, older than anything that should have been there. Hastily, the workmen summoned the Vatican archaeologist. Very carefully, they exposed what proved to be an ancient mausoleum, without its roof.

Vatican Necropolis

The Vatican Necropolis.

The ancient tradition is that the emperor Constantine had built St. Peter’s on top of an ancient, pagan necropolis, in which St. Peter had been buried following his martyrdom, to venerate the grave of the Apostle. The Vatican archaeologists soon uncovered the truth of this: a long avenue lined with some two dozen ancient, pagan tombs, dating certainly to the second and third centuries and possibly even older. Though most of the oldest tombs were pagan, the later ones showed evidence of increasing Christian burials. A number contained remarkable artwork.

Slope diagrams

Diagrams showing the location of the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica, along the natural slope of Vatican Hill, which Constantine had leveled in construction of the original basilica, burying the necropolis. (Walsh)

St. Peter’s Basilica was built on the side of the Vatican Hill. Not only does the slope of the hill rise from east (the façade of the church) to west (the apse), but at an even steeper incline, it also rises from south to north. The ground had to be built up considerably to lay an even foundation for the church, and in the process the builders simply removed the roofs of the necropolis’s tombs, packed dirt into the chambers, and used the walls as supports. In the process they preserved them, and left a considerable portion of the ancient cemetery sloping down underneath the church. Over the ensuing months and years, archaeologists painstakingly excavated as much as they could. The corridor of the necropolis, with tombs on both sides, extends some sixty meters beneath the Grottoes. The original necropolis was probably even larger, but the excavators were limited by how much they could uncover without undermining the foundations of the church: Constantine erected six great retaining walls into the hillside, running the length of the church, and no doubt slicing through the cemetery.

Initially reluctant, Pope Pius XII granted permission for the archaeologists to investigate beneath the high altar. Breaking through the rear wall of the Clementine Chapel, they discovered a wall of ancient marble trimmed with porphyry — which proved to be the back of the ancient memoria Constantine had erected around St. Peter’s tomb.*

* This description presupposes a lot that the archaeologists only understood after years of excavation, interpretation, and reconstruction. Initially, they had only a vague idea what they were looking at.


According to the historian Eusebius, writing in the 290s, Saints Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome under the persecution of Nero, ca. 63–67. Eusebius attests that “this account . . . is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.” He cites as testimony a disputation published by Gaius, a churchman under Pope Zephyrinus (r. 199–217), against Proclus, an early Montanist leader. When Proclus appealed to the tombs of St. Philip and his daughters at Hierapolis to substantiate the apostolic tradition of his teaching, Gaius replied, declaring the superiority of Rome’s apostolic tombs (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II.25):

But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.

Eusebius, writing some forty years before Constantine began work on St. Peter’s Basilica, here confirms the tradition that St. Peter was buried on the Vatican, and that St. Paul was buried along the Ostian Way, where Constantine also built the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Their tombs were still well known in Eusebius’s day. By Gaius’s testimony, the tombs were certainly being venerated from an early date. It is from this passage that the archaeologists came to identify the ancient monument they discovered over St. Peter’s grave, preserved inside Constantine’s memoria, as the Tropaion (τρόπαιον, or “trophy”) of Gaius.

Tropaion

A reconstruction of St. Peter’s Tropaion, with his grave beneath. (Fabbrica di San Pietro)

The Tropaion, as archaeologists discovered it inside Constantine’s memoria and reconstructed it, is believed to have been erected under the reign of Pope Anicetus, between 150 and 167 (this dating from some marked bricks found in the area and from a reference in the Liber Pontificalis regarding the pope who “built the monument of the blessed Peter,” who is identified mistakenly with Pope Anacletus). The archaeologists were able to reconstruct, by the many other graves nearly, layered upon each other — likely Christians who wanted to lie near St. Peter — a history of the grave, dating back certainly, they argued, to the latter half of the first century when Peter would have been buried.

Tropaion Model

A model of the way the Tropaion would have appeared ca. 260, after the construction of the Graffiti Wall. (mcsmith.blogs.com)

Sometime in the mid-third century, around the decade of 250–260, a major break occurred in the supporting wall behind the Tropaion (the famous “Red Wall” of the excavation). A thick sustaining wall was built against the north side of the Tropaion, upsetting its aesthetics considerably but supporting the structure. This wall, when archaeologists discovered it, had come to be covered with the graffiti of pilgrims. Another wall was eventually built on the south side. This is the way the monument would have appeared in the time of Constantine.


Constantine's Memoria

A model of Constantine’s memoria, circa fourth century. The clear shelf at the top of the model corresponds with the floor of the modern-day basilica. (mcsmith.blogs.com)

Constantine Memoria back

The rear of Constantine’s memoria. Compare to the rear wall of the Clementine Chapel (see link above). (mcsmith.blogs.com)

Pope Gregory's high altar and confessio

Pope Gregory’s high altar and confessio, circa seventh century. (mcsmith.blogs.com)


Niche of the Pallia

The Niche of the Pallia. (christusrex.org)

Constantine laid the foundations of St. Peter’s basilica between 326 and 333. In leveling the Vatican Necropolis, a cemetery still in active use, he violated Rome’s most sacred laws against the desecration of graves; it would have taken all his imperial authority to avoid censure. But honoring the Christian Apostles was a higher call. It is likely that Pope Sylvester confirmed the location of St. Peter’s grave, under his protection, to Constantine.

In the same way he had done at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Constantine venerated St. Peter’s tomb by breaking down everything around it and encasing it in a marble shell, the memoria. He left the Tropaion intact exactly as it was, even with the unaesthetic graffiti wall. In the original basilica, the memoria stood at the floor level of the church, with the altar set up before it.

Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590–604) conducted a major remodeling of the high altar area of St. Peter’s Basilica during his papacy. He wanted to celebrate Mass on an altar above St. Peter’s tomb — which he placed on top of Constantine’s memoria. In order for the altar to be at the proper level, Gregory raised the floor around the altar, and created the beginnings of the recessed confessio beneath it, and a crypt behind it (which would become the Clementine Chapel).

Later popes would make further additions and improvements. Popes Callixtus II (r. 1119–1124) and Clement VIII (r. 1592–1605) both installed new high altars. Gradually Constantine’s memoria and St. Peter’s tomb were lost from view and memory. St. Peter’s tomb was here, tradition assured the Church; but nothing more was known for certain, than that the Apostle lay beneath the high altar.

The Niche of the Pallia, in the confessio of the present church, rests in the portal of Constantine’s ancient memoria. Immediately beneath it lies St. Peter’s tomb.


That’s enough for one bite! Stay tuned for Part Two, concerning the excavation of the Tropaion: “The Grave of St. Peter.” And the conclusion in Part Three, concerning the relics supposedly belonging to St. Peter, “The Bones of St. Peter.”

Sources:
  • Kirschbaum, Engelbert, S.J. The Tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1959.
  • Walsh, John Evangelist. The Bones of St. Peter. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Merton on Baptismal Grace

“Once you have grace, you are free. Without it, you cannot help doing the things you know you should not do, and that you know you don’t really want to do. But once you have grace, you are free. When you are baptized, there is no power in existence that can force you to commit a sin — nothing that will be able to drive you to it against your own conscience. And if you merely will it, you will be free forever, because the strength will be given you, as much as you need, and as often as you ask, and as soon as you ask, and generally long before you ask for it, too.”

—Thomas Merton, to his brother John Paul
In The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)

Suscipe, Domine

St. Ignatius of Loyola

St. Ignatius of Loyola

Receive, O Lord, all my liberty.
Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.
Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me;
to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.