Tracing the history of St. Peter’s bones

Tracing the history of St. Peter’s bones
Pope Francis prays in front of the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 2, the feast of All Souls. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Pope Francis prays in front of the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 2, the feast of All Souls. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

One of the benefits of attending the annual American Academy of Religion, the world’s largest professional guild of theologians, philosophers and scholars of religion (over 10,000 attendees!), is the Exhibition Hall. For a bookworm like me, the chance to wander around and meet with publishers and booksellers from every major academic and popular press is exciting. Plus, you almost always run into someone you’ve seen on a History Channel documentary, and that never gets old.

This year, in Atlanta, Random House had an amazing opportunity. Sign up for their online distribution list from your institutional email and take any two of their newly released books for free. Since I am teaching a summer class at Loyola’s campus in Rome this year, I couldn’t pass up the chance to grab two gratis volumes on “Vatican stuff.” So on the plane ride home, I read Thomas Craughwell’s “St Peter’s Bones” cover to cover.

While the short book did have what I judged to be a few minor stylistic missteps, the presentation of the history of the excavations of the tombs beneath St. Peter’s Basilica proved to be gripping and well-researched. I had heard the abbreviated highlights of the story’s long and complicated arc while in Rome on what is called the “Scavi” tour into the necropolis beneath the church, a real highlight of my time there and a must for anyone interested in early Christian or ancient Roman history.

Craughwell traces the major developments in the tomb’s modern unearthing, beginning with the shocking chance discovery of the layers of history beneath the world’s most famous church by archeologists, and culminating with Paul VI’s announcement after three decades of scientific study, that the bones of Christ’s most prominent fisherman-follower had indeed been unearthed, and then unfathomably squirreled away without demarcation in a cardboard box in the Vatican vaults for almost a generation.

In fact, the unadorned relics were there long enough for a field mouse to become disoriented and starved to death in this unceremonious final resting place, and thus to have its remains intermingled with the first Vicar of Christ’s on a shelf in a subterranean office. It’s unclear what happened to the mouse when the saint’s bones were restored to the crypt.

“St. Peter’s Bones” is an intriguing tale of academic rivalry and exacting scientific analysis of Roman engineering, forensic science, and painstaking explorations into clandestine graffiti scratched into the walls by early pilgrims which I do not have the space (or expertise) to trace fully here. Its major players and their roles in this real-life mystery novel are outlined and described in detail: not only the reigning pontiffs from Pius XII forward, but also jealous clerical guardians of the church’s long-held traditions, corps of workmen, often so proud of their custodianship of the basilica that the job is passed down through generations from father to son, known simply as the sampietrini (“St. Peter’s little ones”), and a brilliant and tireless lay woman professor gaining access to these sites at a time when this was not common in Vatican circles.

As Mike Aquilina rightly notes in his praise of the book, “It’s a thriller, a whodunit, and an adventure, full of clues, codes, false trails, professional envy, whiffs of conspiracy, and heroic mercy.”

Craughwell moves the reader adroitly from the 19th century catacombs to the Milvian Bridge in the time of Constantine to the modern Vatican bureaucratic offices and back again. The complex history of the site of Peter’s burial and the numerous churches that have stood there one upon the other for nearly two millennia cannot but capture one’s imagination.

Even the United States plays into the narrative, as a chance visit from an American bishop after some of the excavations resulted in one set of relics being “translated” (Vatican-speak for ‘moved’) to Los Angeles where the city’s cathedral, then viewed as mission territory, would be named after the rediscovered remains of a Roman woman about which nothing was known beyond her name, Vibiana, and the fact that she was almost certainly martyred for her faith. All of this was done at Pope Pius IX’s direction to the likely slightly bewildered bishop, whether as a generous and inspiring gift or an ultramontane imposition having little to do with the local church remains debatable. But Vibiana’s remains are still housed in the LA cathedral, though in a new location and with a new name, today called Our Lady of the Angels.

Regardless of denominational affiliation or current location, Rome plays an important part in our history as global Christians, both as the almost indisputable site of Peter’s and Paul’s executions, and in the sense that its secular and religious history mandates that it remain in some ways “caput mundi,” the “head of the world.” Craughwell’s work is an enjoyable and readable little primer on an important and fascinating element of our shared tradition stemming from that spot to which millions have flocked over the centuries, on a swampy hill near the Tiber.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, PhD, Loyola University Chicago.

Categories: As I See It, Columns

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