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Rome The Scavi of St. Peter's and the Grittiness of Catholicism


The remarkable sites beneath St. Peter's are known today as the scavi (excavations). A walk through them is a walk into some important truths about what it means to be a Catholic.


Pope Pius XI died on February 10, 1939. Prior to his election as bishop of Rome in 1922, he had been the archbishop of Milan for a brief period, and the Milanese wanted to honor his memory by building a fitting resting place for him in St. Peter's Basilica. So funds were raised, artists commissioned, and a magnificent marble sarcophagus, which was to be the centerpiece of a richly decorated mosaic vault, was prepared and sent to Rome.

According to one story I've heard, when it came time to fit the new tomb into the grottoes underneath the papal high altar in St. Peter's, it was simply too large. Perhaps that's a case of historical embellishment, which isn't rare in Italy; or perhaps it's just a typical Roman attempt to tweak the usually efficient Milanese. In any event, there were longstanding plans to renovate the entire grotto area and make it a more appropriate place for pilgrims to pray. So Pope Plus XII, successor to Pius XI, ordered the floor of the undercroft to be lowered to make room for the tomb of his predecessor and to take a first step in the planned renovation.

It was a decision with unforeseen consequences.

What we know today as St. Peter's used to be called New St. Peter's to distinguish it from Old St. Peter's, the basilica built by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, over what he and everyone else understood to be the grave of Peter, prince of the apostles. Despite his absorption in planning the new imperial capital at Constantinople, Constantine helped with the construction of his magnificent St. Peter's by carrying twelve baskets of earth to the site, one for each of the twelve apostles. For more than a millennium, Old St. Peter's was one of the focal points of the Christian world, a pole toward which Christians' internal compasses naturally pointed.

By the second half of the fifteenth century, however, Old St. Peter's had fallen to rack and ruin; the decision was made to pull it down to make way for a new basilica. The building of New St. Peter's, which would eventually include the world's largest dome and the fantastically strong foundations needed to support it, took 120 years and absorbed the attention of twenty popes and ten architects, including such legends as Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini. The building's changing design, the execution of those designs, and the fund-raising necessary to support such a vast project caused a lot of controversy, and contributed in at least an indirect way to the Reformation. Amid all the confusion and construction, little was done to explore the tomb of St. Peter. It was simply assumed to be where tradition and Constantine had sited it. "New St. Peter's" was thus built without any systematic excavation of what was underneath Old St. Peter's.

When the workmen began lowering the floor of the undercroft to accommodate the tomb of Pope Pius XI and renovate the grotto space, they discovered a series of tombs that, on further examination, seemed to be part of a kind of necropolis, complete with walls, streets, benches, funerary monuments, and so forth. Much of this had been disturbed or destroyed when the ancient Vatican Hill was leveled by Constantine's fourth-century builders, but a fair amount of it was still intact. While World War II raged across Europe, Pius XII quietly authorized a full-scale archaeological excavation of the area, which continued throughout the 1940s.

Digging under the papal high altar of the basilica was something like peeling an onion or opening one of those nested Russian matrushka dolls. Eventually the excavators found a shrine, the Tropaion (the Greek word for trophy or victory monument): a classic structure with columns supporting what may have been an altar, surmounted by a pediment. The floor of the Tropaion, which has an opening delineating the boundaries of the grave over which the monument was built, defined the level of the floor of Constantine's basilica. At the back of the Tropaion was a red wall; exposed to the elements, it began to crack, necessitating the construction of a buttressing wall to support the whole structure. When archaeologists unearthed the buttressing wall, they found it covered with graffiti. And it contained a secret, marble-lined repository. One piece of graffiti, decoded, seemed to say, "Peter is [here!]"

Thanks to long delayed renovation plans, the need to accommodate Pius XI's tomb, and the curiosity of Pius XII (who seems to have been intrigued by the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1923), archaeologists eventually unearthed a small city of the dead beneath the foundations of Old St. Peter's, which had been incorporated into New St. Peter's as supports for the colossal new structure. There had been, evidently, a vast pagan burial ground on the Vatican Hill. At some point, Christians began to be buried there. The central grave that defines the Tropaion is surrounded by other graves, which radiate toward it. Thus it seems that the remains of St. Peter, which would have been among the most jealously guarded relics of the ancient Roman Christian community, had been buried, perhaps immediately after his death, perhaps a brief time later, in the Vatican Hill necropolis: secretly, but with sufficient clues to indicate to pious Christian pilgrims the location of Peter's tomb. Perhaps the remains were, during persecutions, moved to a less risky place and then reinterred. Perhaps the Tropaion was part of a Christian complex that, in calmer times, was used for baptisms, ordinations, and funerals. Perhaps, before the Tropaion was built, the grave itself was used as a site for small Christian gatherings in the dead of night.

No one knows for sure. Archaeology isn't algebra; it yields probabilities rather than certainties. But reputable scientific opinion today holds that the excavations under St. Peter's in the 1940s originally undertaken for an entirely different purpose did yield the mortal remains of Peter.

Oddly enough, amid the fragments of Peter's skull, vertebrae, arms, hands, pelvis, and legs, there is nothing from the ankles on down. But perhaps that isn't so odd after all. If a man has been crucified upside down, as tradition says Peter was, the easiest way to remove what was left of his body (which may well have been turned into a living torch during his execution, in another refinement of Roman cruelty) would have been to chop off the deceased's feet and remove the rest of the corpse from its cross.

The remarkable sites beneath St. Peter's are known today as the scavi (excavations). A walk through them is a walk into some important truths about what it means to be a Catholic.

Not so long ago, you couldn't see St. Peter's from the Tiber River, a few hundred yards away: it was fronted by a Roman slum, the Borgo. To prepare for the holy year of 1950, the Italian government knocked the slums down and built a broad avenue that runs from the Tiber up to St. Peter's Square: the Via della Conciliazione (Reconciliation Street), so named for the 1929 modus vivendi between the Italian Republic and the Church that created the independent microstate of Vatican City. No matter how many times you do it, the turn into the Conciliazione and that first, startling view of St. Peter's and its dome is always breathtaking. We're fortunate to be doing this today because the basilica, whose facade was extensively cleaned for the Great Jubilee of 2000, looks better than it has in centuries, and perhaps ever. What was once a blinding mass of white travertine stone has, on cleaning, revealed itself to be a rich mix of colors, including café au lait and some light pastels. Still, we don't want to concentrate on the facade and the dome as we walk into the square, but on the obelisk that stands precisely in the center of the square, framed by Bernini's great colonnade.

The obelisk, a granite Egyptian monolith standing eighty-four feet tall and weighing 350 tons, was brought to Rome from North Africa by the mad emperor Caligula, who terrorized Rome from A.D. 37 to 41, before he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard; his wickedness, you may remember, was memorably portrayed by John Hurt in the BBC television series I, Claudius . Caligula's nephew, Nero, made the obelisk part of the spina, or "spine," of his "circus," an elongated oval in which races were held, mock battles staged, exotic animals exhibited and the condemned executed, often with unimaginable viciousness, for the amusement of the spectators. As you look to the left of St. Peter's, you can see, past the Swiss Guard standing at the Archway of the Bells, the area of Vatican City known as the Piazza dei Protomartiri Romani (Square of the First Roman Martyrs), so named because that was the part of Nero's now nonexistent circus in which many faithful Christians paid the ultimate price of fidelity.

Tradition tells us that Peter died during one of Nero's spasms of persecution, and if so, he likely died in Nero's circus. If he did, then it's quite possible that the last thing Peter saw on this earth was the obelisk you're now pondering, which was moved to the square in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. Think about that as we walk a bit farther into the Vatican.

As we enter through the Archway of the Bells, we come to the scavi office, the entrance to the excavations beneath the basilica. Scavi tours are not large affairs, and as we go down the stairways and enter the excavations themselves, you can see why. The passageways are narrow and slightly musty, even dampish. As we make our way through the dark corridors that were once streets and alleys in the Vatican Hill necropolis, our guide points out the elaborate pagan funerary monuments as well as Christian tombs. There, after about a twenty-minute walk, is what can be made out of the Tropaion. And after that, reinterred in the graffiti-marked wall I mentioned before, are what the guide tells us are the mortal remains of Peter the apostle. Leaving through the gilded baroque splendor of the Clementine Chapel, you can't help but think that what we've just seen and touched and smelled is about as close to the apostolic roots of the Catholic Church as it's possible to get.

The scavi are more than excavations; if we take them seriously, the scavi demand that we think through the meaning of an extraordinary story involving some utterly ordinary people. Here it is. Sometime in the third decade of the first century of the first millennium of our era, a man named Simon, whose father was named John, made his modest living as a fisherman in Galilee which, even by regional standards, was a pretty rough patch of what was itself a fringe of the "civilized world." This man, Simon, became a personal friend of Jesus of Nazareth. Through that encounter, he became not Simon but Peter, the rock. But not for a while yet.

His friend Jesus called him "Peter," a wordplay on "rock," but the newly minted Peter hardly seems granitelike in the pre-Easter sections of the Gospels. He is impetuous; he often doesn't understand what Jesus is saying. No sooner does he get his new name than he starts telling Jesus that he, Jesus, is flat wrong when he says that the promised Messiah of God must suffer; Jesus calls him a "Satan" and tells him to "get behind me" (Matthew 16:13-23). When Jesus is arrested, Peter insinuates himself into the courtyard near where his master is being interrogated. But when challenged to acknowledge that he, too, was with Jesus the Galilean, Peter starts cursing and denies that he ever knew the man. The Gospels do not suggest that Peter was present at the crucifixion; they do tell us that, after his denial, he "went out and wept bitterly" (Matthew 26:69-75).

In the Catholic view of things, Easter changes everything; it certainly changed Peter. After encountering the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday morning and along the lakeshore of the Sea of Galilee, Peter truly is the rock. Filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, he becomes the Church's first great evangelist; the tale is told in Acts 2:14-41, where the crowd initially assumes that this suddenly eloquent Galilean fisherman must be drunk and then converts in great numbers, each hearing Peter in his own language. Peter welcomes the centurion Cornelius, a Gentile, into the Christian fellowship, enabling his fellow Jews to see that God intends the saving message of Christ for the whole world (Acts 10:1-11:18). As the early Church struggles with what it means to be a Christian, Peter is recognized as the center of the Church's unity, the man before whom issues of Christian identity and practice are thrashed out (Acts 15:6-11). Later, according to the most ancient traditions, Peter goes to Rome, where he meets his death thus fulfilling what the Risen Christ said to him at breakfast along the Sea of Galilee after the miraculous catch of fish: "when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go" (John 21:18).

The scavi and the obelisk Peter's remains and the last thing Peter may have seen in this life confront us with the historical tangibility, the sheer grittiness, of Catholicism. For all that critical scholarship has taught us about the complex story of the early Christian movement, certain unavoidable facts remain. Here, in the scavi, you can touch them. A Galilean fisherman a man whose personal characteristics, warts and all, were carefully recorded by his followers ends up buried on Vatican Hill. Why? For more than nineteen hundred years, pilgrims from all over the world have come to venerate this man's remains. Why?

Catholicism does not rest on a pious myth, a story that floats away from us the more we try to touch it. Here, in the scavi, we're in touch with the apostolic foundations of the Catholic Church. And those foundations are not in our minds. They exist, quite literally, in reality. Real things happened to real people who made real, life-and-death decisions and staked their lives not on stories or fables but on what they had come to know as the truth. Beneath the layers of encrusted tradition and pious storytelling, there is something real, something you can touch, at the bottom of the bottom line of Catholic faith.

And that forces us to confront some decisions.

You've asked me to help you explore some of the truths of Catholic faith and practice. One of the most important truths that you might ponder is this: the truth of faith is something that seizes us, not something of our own discovery (still less, our invention). The Peter who was led from Galilee to Rome did not make the journey because of something he had discovered and wanted to explore to satisfy his curiosity. Peter went from the security of his modest Galilean fishing business to the dangerous (and ultimately lethal) center of the Roman Empire because he had been seized by the truth, the truth he had met in the person of Jesus.

Being seized by the truth is not cost-free. "You have received without pay, give without pay," Jesus tells his new disciples, including Peter (Matthew 10:8). In Peter's case, the call to give away the truth that had seized and transformed his life eventually cost him his life. And that, too, is a truth to be pondered: faith in Jesus Christ costs not just something, but everything. It demands all of us, not just a part of us.

One of the most touching scenes in the Gospels is St. John's story of Peter's encounter with the Risen Christ along the Sea of Galilee, to which I've referred earlier. In that story, the Risen Christ asks Peter, who's surrounded by the other apostles, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" Peter, perhaps abashed, answers, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." The question then comes again, "Do you love me?" And Peter replies, again, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Still evidently unsatisfied, the Risen One poses the question a third time: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter, the Gospel tells us, was "grieved" because the questions kept coming, and finally answers, "Lord, you know everything, you known that I love you" (John 21:15-17). Generations of preachers have presented this as a matter of the Risen Christ teasing Peter, matching Peter's three denials before the crucifixion with three questions about Peter's love. I think there's something far deeper, something at that border between the intimate and the awesome, going on here.

Peter, who has been given his new name because he is to be the rock on which the Church rests, is being told, gently but firmly, that his love for Christ is not going to be an easy thing. His love is not going to be a matter of "fulfilling" himself. His love must be a pouring out of himself, and in that self-emptying he will find his fulfillment if not in terms that the world usually understands as "fulfillment." In abandoning any sense of his autonomy, in binding himself to feed the lambs and sheep of the Lord's flock, Peter will find his true freedom. In giving himself away, he will find himself. Freely you have received, freely you must give if the gift is to continue to live in you. That is what the Risen Christ tells Peter on the lakeshore.

As we've seen, in the Gospels Peter constantly makes a hash of things which should predispose us to think that those stories really happened; the leader's mistakes and failures and betrayals are not something his followers would likely have invented. In a world deeply skeptical of the miraculous, perhaps the hardest of these stories to accept is the story of Peter's walking on water. Put aside your skepticism for a moment and consider what the story is teaching us about Peter and about ourselves.

You know the basic narrative. The disciples are out on the Sea of Galilee in a boat themselves when then see what they take to be a ghost walking toward them across the stormy waters. Jesus tells them not to be afraid: "Take heart, it is I." And Peter, whose crusty skepticism has a modern ring to it, responds, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water." Jesus raises the ante: "Come." Peter climbs out of the boat and starts to walk toward Jesus across the water until, that is, he starts looking around at the waves blown up by the wind, at which point he starts sinking and calls out to Jesus to save him. Jesus takes him by the hand and leads him to safety in the boat, as the weather calms (Matthew 14:25-32).

Did it happen just like that? I don't know, although I'm inclined to think that something extraordinary happened on the Sea of Galilee that night. However we work out the meteorology and hydrology, though, the lesson of the story the truth it's trying to convey remains, and helps fill in our portrait of Peter and our understanding of faith as radical gift. When Peter keeps his eyes fixed on Jesus, he can do what he imagines impossible: "walk on water." When he starts looking around for his security when he starts looking elsewhere he sinks. So do we. When we keep our gaze fixed on Christ, we, too, can do what seems impossible. We can accept the gift of faith, with humility and gratitude. We can live our lives as the gift for others that our lives are to us. We can discover the depths of ourselves in the emptying of ourselves.

In the Catholic view of things, "walking on water" is an entirely sensible thing to do. It's staying in the boat, hanging tightly to our own sad little securities, that's rather mad.

There are many other Peter stories we could revisit including, while we're here in Rome, the famous Quo Vadis story of Peter's alleged flight from Nero's persecution. As the legend has it, Peter decided to flee Rome at the outbreak of persecution, perhaps in fear, perhaps because he thought "the rock" should be somewhere safe so others could eventually find and cling to it, and to him. Heading out the Via Appia, Peter meets Jesus, who's heading into the city and the persecution. "Quo vadis, Domine," Peter asks "Lord, where are you going?" "I am going to Rome to be crucified," Jesus answers and disappears. At which point Peter turns back into the city to embrace martyrdom. In Rome, to this day, you can visit the spot on the Via Appia Antica where all of this is said to have happened (the church is worth a visit; the Quo Vadis Restaurant is a tourist trap).

The Quo Vadis legend is interesting for its tenacity. It's also interesting for the same reason it's interesting that the Church, in deciding which books to include in the canon of the New Testament, included four Gospels that all describe, sometimes in great detail, Peter's failures. Those stories could have been discretely edited out, airbrushed from history; they weren't. And that tells us something.

What it tells us is that weakness and failure have been part of the Catholic reality from the beginning. Weakness and failure, too, are part of the grittiness of Catholicism including weakness and failure, stupidity and cowardice among the Church's ordained leaders. Flannery O'Connor was speaking a very ancient truth when she wrote in 1955 that "it seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it." Almost fifty years later, Catholics in the United States have relearned that lesson the hard way, in the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and the crisis that scandal caused when it was so badly handled by some bishops the successors of the apostles. I don't detect any massive abandonment of the Catholic Church because of this crisis. But it does force us to come to grips with the fact that the people of the Church, including its ordained leadership, are earthen vessels carrying the treasure of faith in history (as St. Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 4:7).

Only the naive would expect it to be otherwise. Like Peter, all the people of the Church, including the Church's ordained leadership, must constantly be purified. And purified by what? Like Peter, we must be purified by love, by a more complete and radical emptying of self. "Smugness," Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "is the Great Catholic Sin." Looking at Peter, we might almost say, "as it was in the beginning. . . "

But here, too, the scavi help us get to the deeper truth of Catholic things. Although the early Church insisted on including weakness and failure in the narrative of its first years and decades, the story line of the New Testament of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles is not, finally, a story of failure, but of purified love transforming the world. To be sure, that transformation comes with a price: imagine Peter, in the agonized moments before his death, looking at that obelisk we can see today, and you can understand that none of this is easy. Then consider all those pilgrims who, like Peter, were seized by the truth of Christ and who have come, over the centuries, to place themselves in the presence of Peter's remains. Pious nostalgia? Raw curiosity? I don't think so. Whether articulate or mute, what those millions of other lives are saying, as they pray in the scavi or over the scavi, surrounded by the baroque magnificence of the basilica, is that failure is not the final word. Emptiness and oblivion are not our destiny. Love is the final word. And love is the most living thing of all because love is of God.

To know that, and to stake your life on it, is to have been seized by the truth of God in Christ amid and through, not around, the gritty reality of the world.



George Weigel. "Rome The Scavi of St. Peter's and the Grittiness of Catholicism." chapter 2 in Letters to a Young Catholic (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 19-32.

Reprinted with permission of George Weigel. All rights reserved. Letters to a Young Catholic ISBN 0-465-09262-4.

The Author

weigel777smweigel5smGeorge Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Among his books are The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent TimesLessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Catholic Church, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, Evangelical Catholicism, The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.

Copyright © 2004 George Weigel
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