Solving a Two Thousand Year-Old Mystery

Review of The Bones of Saint Peter by John Evangelist Walsh. Sophia Institute Press, 2011.

This fascinating and fairly short volume (178 pages) is a reprint of the original published in 1982. It tells the story of the search for the remains of the first pope of the Catholic Church, Saint Peter, martyred at Rome in the year 68 (some sources say 64) A.D. Tradition has always held that Saint Peter considered himself unworthy to die as his Savior did; so he requested to be crucified upside down. Peter was fairly old at the time of his death, probably somewhere in his seventies.

According to the ancient belief, Peter’s mortal remains lay under the high altar of the great Basilica bearing his name. Today’s “First Church of Christendom” was built in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But before that magnificent building was begun there was the huge and magnificent basilica built by Constantine in the fourth century. Because it had decayed over the centuries to the point of being unsafe, Pope Julius II determined to construct the most sumptuous religious building in Christendom over the original one of Constantine, which itself was built over a small shrine on Vatican Hill. The construction of the present basilica took one hundred and twenty years, involved many of the world’s greatest Renaissance artists, and spanned the reigns of twenty Popes! It was finally completed just after the reign of Pope Innocent X in the year 1626.

We know that Saint Peter, after leading the early Church in Rome, was crucified in the terrible persecution of the maniac emperor Nero. It was the practice of the pagans during the early persecutions to destroy the remains of the martyred Christians so that they could not be buried with honor and later venerated by fellow Christians. The relics were usually burned and the ashes scattered in the Tiber or left out for the wild dogs to consume. The pagans didn’t want any holy remains to encourage those trouble-making Christians into starting up more problems for them! Many times they were unsuccessful and the Christians were able to steal the bodies under cover of night and give them decent (and secret) burials. The age-old hope and belief that the body of the beloved first pope had been one of these rescued ones; this hope was kept alive for almost two millennia.

A Very Long Wait

Beneath the High Altar of Saint Peter’s is a vast and deep series of streets, catacombs, burial chambers, grottos, rooms, pools, and caches containing century upon century of treasures. Remains of popes, of known and unknown saints at upper levels, and elaborate pagan burial sites at lower levels have been revealed through the years. Digging is difficult and expensive and must be done carefully by experts who know what they are looking for. Water seepage over the centuries adds to the difficulty. Needless to say, work proceeds at a snail’s pace with each and every item discovered held up to close examination.

During the reign of Pope Pius XII, piles of human and animal bones were discovered at the level commensurate with the era of first-century Christianity. Excitedly, the workmen, led by two priests who were archaeologists and experts in their field, Father Kirschbaum and Monsignor Kass, reported these findings to the Holy Father, who immediately took himself to the spot. It was agreed that the possibility of identifying the bones of Saint Peter was imminent. The Holy Father later publicly announced in the 1950 Holy Year that the burial site of the saint had been found. But, were the actual bones of the Saint identified? Not yet.

Why was it not until nearly thirty years later that Pope Paul VI was able to announce in 1968 that the bones of Saint Peter had been found and positively identified? Well, to find the answer to the mystery – a truly Byzantine story – you need to read the book yourself!


Drawings and Diagrams

One of the fine features of this little book is the many drawings and diagrams of the excavation site. The most interesting is the actual depiction of what remains of Saint Peter’s skeleton. Totally absent are any parts of the feet. The theory is that because he was crucified upside down, the feet simply were detached in some manner from the leg bones and disappeared along with the wood of the cross. There are also photographs of the actual excavations and the important personnel included in solving the mystery – the two priests mentioned above and Dr. Maria Guarducci, who spent the better part of her life dedicated to this project.


My Favorite Chapter

Of course, a book review is always subjective; so my opinion of the best chapter of this little tome is based on my love of the study of history. It is titled “The Ancient Silence.” And just what was this silence that dates back to the second half of the first century? The author’s supposition is that “All the evidence shows that, right from the start, Peter’s burial was and remained a hidden one.” The graveyard was located some distance outside of the main part of the great city of more than two million inhabitants. Pagans and Christians – what few there were by comparison at the time – were buried here. The Christians who saved Peter’s body from desecration were committing a grave crime which could have caused their own deaths. So – the way to protect the precious relic (and their own skins) was to keep silent. Only a few knew the whereabouts of the burial place; thus the secret was passed from generation to generation. Eventually a pagan-looking structure was built over it in order to disguise the fact that a great early Christian was buried there. Even Constantine was told only minimal facts. When he built his grandiose basilica, he knew that it was over Saint Peter’s bones, but the exact location was known by so few at this time, that the secret finally disappeared into the mists of history.

Although the most vicious of the persecutions had ended by the time of Constantine, most Romans were still pagans. Constantine’s nephew, Julian the Apostate, rejected Christianity and attempted to restore pagan worship as the official religion of the Empire. For two years he conducted a campaign of destruction of Christian graves and shrines. He hated Our Lord and the new flourishing religion, and had he not been felled while leading his troops into battle, the likelihood is that his desire to stifle Christianity would have succeeded. Julian’s dying words were “Galilean, you have conquered!”

In their excavations, the twentieth century sleuths were not only successful in locating the gravesite, but they also located the ancient wooden box containing the remains of the first pope. In their thoroughness, they discovered that an entire hidden and deeply buried church was (and still is) located under the high altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica. This structure, called in the book “the red-wall complex,” is considered the actual first Christian church in all the world. If one visits the site today, one can view the box containing the precious relics through locked bronze grill work doors. If you plan to visit Rome, take this little book along as a companion when you revere “the bones of Saint Peter.”