Indeed, at the closing Mass for the Year of Faith (Nov. 24, 2013), Pope Francis venerated the relics of St. Peter and displayed them for public veneration during the singing of the Nicene Creed. Here was a great gesture of faith: Pope Francis, the 265th successor of St. Peter, holding the relics of the first pope and vicar of Christ, St. Peter, during the holy sacrifice of the Mass that unites the faithful throughout the world in the timeless sacrifice of Our Lord.
Such a gesture moves us to remember the earliest days of the church and our first pope. After the Council of Jerusalem in AD 49, St. Peter returned to Rome. There he served as the bishop of the small Christian community, holding Mass in homes. During this time, he also dictated the Gospel, ascribed by name to his secretary, St. Mark, and his two letters included in our New Testament (a dating confirmed by recent papyrologic and paleographic studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls).
In 64-65, Nero set fire to Rome so that he could build his new palace. Needing a scapegoat, he blamed the Christians, as recorded by Tacitus in his Annales. A horrific persecution ensued. St. Peter himself was arrested and condemned to death. He was taken to the Vatican Hill to the Circus of Caligula (also known as the Circus Nero), a chariot race course. Interestingly, the Egyptian obelisk that stands in the center of St. Peter’s square today (although repositioned) marked the center of the race course.
Tradition holds that St. Peter protested that he was not worthy to die as the Lord and so was crucified upside down. Seneca in his essay To Marcia, On Consolation described this upside-down crucifixion as one of the gorier forms of punishment and torture.
After his death, the faithful recovered St. Peter’s body and buried it in a necropolis northwest of the circus (at the present site of St. Peter’s Basilica). The faithful secretly venerated the grave and protected it from pagan desecration. Pope Anicetus (155-66) built a memorial or “tropaion” to mark the grave, and other popes were buried nearby.
In 330, Emperor Constantine, who had legalized Christianity in 313, began building a huge basilica at the grave site to honor the first pope. The builders had to level the land, thereby filling in the necropolis. They purposefully positioned the altar over the burial site of St. Peter. When Pope Julius began construction on the present St. Peter’s Basilica in 1506 to replace the decaying original basilica, the high altar purposefully remained over the burial site.
Centuries passed. When Pope Pius XI had died, in February 1939, workers started digging a new tomb in the sacred grottoes, the level beneath the main floor of the basilica. They uncovered the necropolis, finding both pagan and Christian mausoleums. Pope Pius XII gave permission to excavate the necropolis including the area under St. Peter’s high altar. The work progressed slowly.
By 1950, archeologists concluded they had found the grave of St. Peter. Greek graffiti on an adjacent wall to the tropaion marked the spot: Petros eni, or “Peter is within” (“eni” being a contraction for “eneoti”). Other graffiti asked St. Peter to pray to Christ for deceased people, and others were common Christian symbols, like the alpha and omega, or the chi and rho.
A variety of bones were also found. One set, which originally had been buried in the earth, were found in a secret marble repository in the graffiti wall. These bones had been wrapped in a purple fabric with gold threads. Were these St. Peter’s bones? In the early 1960s, anthropologists studied the bones. The bones were mostly fragments, with only a few being about 6 inches. They included pieces of the cranium and jaw (including a tooth), vertebrae, pelvis, legs, arms and hands. The anthropologists concluded the bones belonged to a man, between 60 and 70 years of age; about 5 feet, 7 inches tall; and of robust constitution — an apt description of the fisherman, St. Peter. The bones had been discolored by the earth (the same earth as in the grave). The purple and gold thread cloth (dated to the ancient Roman weaving techniques) was an extremely expensive cloth reserved for imperial honors, thereby befitting the first pope.
Some interesting questions had to be addressed: First, why no feet bones? Since St. Peter was hung upside down as a criminal, he was not entitled to a proper burial. The body of a criminal would have been dumped. The faithful must have bribed the executioners, who simply severed the body from the feet nailed to the cross and gave it to them. Such a practice was not uncommon.
Second, why were the bones removed from the grave and placed in the secret repository? The brick work of the repository dated to the reign of the Emperor Valerian (253-60). Valerian intensified the persecution of the church. Sealing the bones inside the marble graffiti wall secured them from desecration.
Third, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, for at least 1,000 years has kept the relic of the skull of St. Peter. Were they of the same bones? When comparison tests were done, the anthropologists concluded nothing in the Lateran reliquary interfered with the Vatican bones. They speculated that the skull had been removed from the rest of the bones to preserve it.
Given this evidence, in February 1968, an official report was presented to Pope Paul VI who concluded that the bones had been “identified in a way which we can hold to be convincing.” Today, they are secured in 19 plexiglass boxes in the same repository where they had been found. As the Council of Trent taught, “The sacred bodies of the holy martyrs and of the other saints living with Christ, which have been living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and which are destined to be raised and glorified by Him unto life eternal, should also be venerated by the faithful. Through them, many benefits are granted to men by God.”
John Evangelist Walsh in his The Bones of St. Peter provides detailed information of the discovery and the research of the excavations. Also, if ever visiting Rome, the scavi tour takes visitors into the excavations of the necropolis and to the tomb of St. Peter.