Having dug for years, on that night they knew they had found what they had been searching for, and so, hastily, one of their number was dispatched. Soon, there came through the darkness deep within the earth, a man clothed all in white. Thereafter, a light was held as Pope Pius XII gazed upon the find. It was a moment that linked twenty centuries.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI made an announcement that the bones of St. Peter, the first pope, had been discovered below the Vatican. Those few who had been involved in this discovery knew that the announcement was stating something that by then had already been known to a few for over two decades. Why the Pope was announcing the find at that time and why it had not been spoken of before, as well as the controversies that had dogged its every step, were not then made public.
Ten years later a book was published: The Bones of St. Peter: The First Full Account of the Discovery of the Apostle’s Tomb by John Evangelist Walsh. Recently republished by Sophia Institute Press, it is now readily available once more. When it first appeared, it was reckoned to be a page turning read. The story it tells has lost none of its fascination, weaving into its narrative thread history, archaeology, tradition and theology.
The Bones of St. Peter does not just document a quest for one of the major historical relics of early Christendom. It is also a tale of intrigue, professional jealousy, of claims and counter claims, of sceptics and believers, of Supreme Pontiffs and humble workmen. In this story, as it unfolds, no one is left untouched by the search or, perhaps more importantly, by the subsequent discovery.
In the midst of some of the darkest days of World War II, there was a group of men, and later women also, who were involved in the search for something much more ancient and even more controversial than the war that then raged all around them. At that time, Rome was surrounded. From the south the Allies advanced, whilst from the North the 20th Century incarnation of the Hun had already descended. In the centre of the city was a neutral State, the Vatican, with the beleaguered Pope Pius XII at its head. And yet it was this Pontiff who had not only authorised the search then taking place below St. Peter’s Basilica but who had also taken such a keen personal interest in it.
What was happening deep in the bowels of the most famous church in Christendom was known only to a handful of people. Those who did know were involved in the dig one way or another, and, therefore, all too conscious of the potential magnitude of what was taking place. As they dug and scraped the earth beneath them, they were removing layers of obfuscation whilst delving ever deeper into the earth and into the very roots of Christianity itself.
Of course the story does not begin in the 1940s. Instead, it is necessary to travel back to the time of the Apostles and to a Rome that was the centre of the world and also the epicentre of the persecution of the Christian sect that had emerged from Palestine and spread rapidly across the lands of the Mediterranean. Some time, towards the end of the First Century of that new epoch, there had come to Rome one who seemed to have authority over this new sect. His name caused reverence, his presence awe. Although poor and despised in the eyes of the pagan world, this man seemed to carry a spiritual significance for the Christian community there. His name was Peter, and he was to live at Rome with that fledgling church and, ultimately, to die in its midst.
The Emperor Nero decreed an end to all Christians. He needed a scapegoat for his own folly and this new sect would fill that role. Thereafter, in arenas the Faithful were thrown to lions and martyred for the pleasure of the masses as the blood of these martyrs seeped into the soil of Rome. It was there that Tradition tells us that Peter met his death. Hung upside down – as a mark of humility – but crucified none the less just like his Master before him. When he had died, it is said his executors cut his head off to make it easier to remove the body from the cross. Like so many others, his blood mingled with the Roman soil that was, in time, to form the basis of not just different architectural structures but an altogether different civilisation.
Nevertheless, for the 20th Century archaeologists this tradition that Peter was buried beneath the Vatican was all they had to go on. It may have been ancient but it was also strong. There was something else though and that was to link that first Pontiff to one of his successors. Pope Pius XI died in 1939. It was whilst he was being laid to rest in an area below St. Peter’s known as the Sacred Grottoes that some began to take note of those dark cavernous chambers. It was felt that a long held plan of turning that space into a chapel should at last be realised. With Papal approval, this plan was duly commenced. Lit only by lamplight, mechanical diggers and other modern implements descended and started to work in the subterranean gloom. It was only a few months into their task that the workmen stumbled upon something. It was enough of a discovery to know that they needed to alert an official. Soon a Vatican archaeologist was at the scene.
What they discovered was a wall. It was a wall built around something, even then clearly decorated in a distinct fashion. The workmen’s task suddenly changed and they were ordered to start with the greatest care possible to empty the space. They proceeded to uncover all the earth that lay in and around it. This was not the first time they had come across a tomb of this sort. They had found pagan burial sites before, but what made this space so remarkable was what they had uncovered was clearly a Christian tomb.
From then on, there was discovery after discovery. Initially, there was a degree of vagueness in the responses given to anyone who asked about what was being unearthed. There had to be. It was too tempting to reach conclusions before facts were fully established. The Bones of St. Peter shows the pressures of differing sorts that were felt by all the various teams of archaeologists. If they appeared naively credulous they would provoke ridicule and undermine anything of value that had been discovered, whereas to be too cynical would be to refute what their professional training was now pointing to and what their eyes were seeing.
The cloak of secrecy that was wrapped around the initial digs was necessary, especially given the circumstances in which they worked. In time, however, this protecting veil added such an air of mystery to the work that by the time the initial leaks to the American media began in the 1950s, the excavation’s purpose appeared fantastical. What followed is gripping; especially as, in the end, the final discovery and the piecing together of the evidence was to turn upon a previously undetected, and rudimentary, mistake made by one of the archaeologists.
Forget the thrillers, so called, that purport to give you some ‘new discovery’ of Christianity and instead merely re-heat age-old fallacies in a 21st Century setting. Part-historical detective story, part-archaeological mystery, Walsh’s The Bones of St. Peter is as exciting and involving as any thriller, but more so because it is all true.
Pope Paul’s 1968 announcement made front-page news. It did little else. The times in which his words were spoken no longer listened to any pontiff. The ears of that generation itched for novelty and turned instead to another ‘voice’ talking of rebellion and dissent then openly stalking the streets and campuses of the Western World.
The lack of publicity around the finding of the bones of St. Peter even now is curious. Walsh’s book was published in 1978, the same year as Ian Wilson’s groundbreaking book on the Shroud of Turin. I wager that whereas many have heard of the Holy Shroud few have heard of what was proclaimed to the world ten years earlier. The latter book was a bestseller and still easily acquired, the former long forgotten until now that is.
Nevertheless, everything has its time, and perhaps in these times it is now more necessary than ever to be reminded as to the sure historical basis of so much of our faith. Of course, Christianity is a religion based upon faith, but it was never simply that. Nor was it ever merely a way of viewing the world, or of living one’s life detached from reality, like some of the ‘religions’ preached subsequently from the so-called New Age of 1968. Our beliefs are indeed based upon faith but also on historical facts, on a reality of flesh and bone that witnessed to the Word made Flesh and, in a mysterious way, through relics such as those found beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, continues to do so.
Editor’s note: The Bones of St. Peter: The First Full Account of the Discovery of the Apostle’s Tomb by John Evangelist Walsh is available from Sophia Institute Press. The image is of St. Peter’s Tomb at the Vatican by CucombreLibre / Flickr [CC BY 2.0]