The mysteries of the tomb of Saint Peter: the collapse that discovered it and the controversy over its bones

The mysteries of the tomb of Saint Peter: the collapse that discovered it and the controversy over its bones
The mysteries of the tomb of Saint Peter: the collapse that discovered it and the controversy over its bones

Pope Francis in front of the tomb of Saint Peter / VATICAN MEDIA / AFP

Simon, known as Peter, was the head of the twelve apostles by the will of Jesus himself, who designated him as founder of the Church. The preaching of the Word took him through countless lands, to Rome, where he was martyred under Emperor Nero and where he was buried.

The grave of Saint Peter It was, from the beginning, a center of passionate worship on the part of the first Christians. The presence of the remains of such an important apostle in Rome has always been a source of great pride and fervor on the part of the faithful. And the same thing happened with the remains of Saint Paul, who was associated with Saint Peter since the beginning of Christianity, and who even shares his feast day with him on June 29. It is always fascinating to stop at how two men so different in history and vocation are associated in the hearts and spirituality of Christians, considered bastions of the faith and even symbols of the Catholic Church.

As for the tomb of Saint Peter, over time it has become a spiritual reference point for Christians around the world, comparable to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built on the place where Jesus died and was buried.

Today, visitors to the Vatican Basilica can admire the imposing Baldachin of Saint Peter, one of the most surprising monuments of Baroque art, which stands above the tomb of the Saint, and the main altar that Clement VIII ordered to be built, above which rises Michelangelo’s majestic dome. But it was not always like this.

Originally, The remains of the Saint were placed in a tomb excavated in the earth, not far from the place of his martyrdom: Nero’s circus, the sumptuous gardens where the Emperor inflicted indescribable torture on Christians. If originally the Saint’s tomb was marked by a simple votive aedicule, the Trophy of Gaius, it was soon granted appropriate honors, first with the construction around it of a monument at the will of the Emperor Constantine, which was three meters: a high marble and porphyry parallelepiped. Then, in the year 320, with an imposing basilica intended to protect the precious remains as a box, designed so that the tomb of Saint Peter coincided with the main altar.

Pope Pius XII – Eugenio Pacelli

With the centuries and the succession of Emperors and Popes, The tomb of Saint Peter was encompassed in increasingly sumptuous altars, that only the archaeological excavations of the mid-20th century revealed, layer after layer. After the monument decided by Constantine, came that of Gregory the Great, in turn enclosed in the altar made by Calixtus II. The one that we can still admire today under Michelangelo’s dome dates back to 1594 and was built by the will of Clement VIII, but, in the meantime, the basilica had been completely demolished and rebuilt by the will of Pope Julius II. This is how St. Peter’s Basilica that we all know and admire was born.

The most interesting aspect for Christians is the centrality that Saint Peter’s tomb maintained throughout these architectural changes.

The archaeological excavations that allowed us to discover the different evolutions of the tomb of Saint Peter began in 1939. It was following an accidental collapse that revealed an ancient Roman burial chamber beneath the floor of the caves next to the altar of Saint Peter. He Pope Pius XII He knew that an ancient document preserved in the Vatican Library, the Book of Popes, described the burial place of Saint Peter and continued the excavations in great secrecy. They discovered numerous pagan tombs, statues and, finally, a tomb decorated with Christian images. At last, the archaeologists found the altars mentioned above and, finally, a red-painted wall against which a funerary sanctuary had been erected, the Caius Trophy.

At first, researchers were not certain that the tomb was indeed that of Saint Peter. His name did not appear there and, in any case, his remains had not been found there. Subsequently, Margherita Guarducci, epigrapher and archaeologist, managed to decipher the apparently incomprehensible graffiti present on the wall on which the primitive aedicule erected as a funerary monument stood. He thus discovered that the name of Saint Peter constantly appeared in these inscriptions and recognized two in particular: “Near Pedro” and “Pedro is here” (Greek: “Petros eni”). Upon further investigation, he learned that workers had previously found a niche carved into the wall and covered in marble, from which human bones had been removed. It was precisely, as successive analyzes confirmed, the relics of Saint Petertransferred by Constantine’s will from the tomb excavated in the earth to this more suitable place.

Although In 1965 the Vatican made public the results of Guarducci’s investigationsbitter disputes continued between clerics and experts over the remains of Saint Peter, to the point that the bones were even removed from the Graffiti Wall niche. Only on December 5, 2013 did Pope Francis return them to their rightful place., after the careful review desired by Pope Benedict XVI, who confirmed what Margherita Guarducci had discovered. Indeed it was the tomb of Saint Peter.

The graffiti that located the grave. In Greek, it says “Near Peter” and “Peter is here.”

We already know that Peter is buried on Vatican Hill, The name Vatican comes from the term “Vaticinium”.to predict the future, given that the vestal virgins went to that hill once they completed their service in the temple of Vesta and their job was to be fortune tellers, that is, to predict the future to whoever requested it.

Regarding the burial of Peter’s successors there is a perhaps banal question, but it has a profound meaning, strictly linked to the very nature of the figure of the pontiff. The tombs of the popes in the Vatican Grottoes (we would call them crypts) are decorated with works of art. At many times in history, Being buried in this place was considered an honor that all pontiffs aspired to, but not only them. In the caves there are also men and women who distinguished themselves for their importance and moral value, including two queens. Despite this, in the past some Popes also preferred to be buried elsewhere. For example in Saint John Lateran, (which was the seat of the papacy for many centuries), there was a necropolis dedicated to numerous medieval popes during almost the entire 12th century and houses, among others, the remains of Leo XIII, while Pius IX rests in the basilica of San Lorenzo in Summer.

Excavations at the tomb of Saint Peter in the 1930s

And as is logical to expect from such an important figure, The burial of a Pope is regulated by a series of traditions and rituals. encoded over time. First of all, the death of the pontiff must be officially verified by the camerlegno, the cardinal in charge of managing the finances of the Holy See and presiding over the see even when it is vacant. The recognition must be carried out in the presence of the master of liturgical celebrations and the secretary and chancellor of the Apostolic Chamber.

The camerlegno, again, places the seals in the Pope’s rooms. The vicar of Rome, for his part, is in charge of making the news known to the city and the world.. Only then does the main door of St. Peter’s Basilica open and the death bells ring.

Margherita Guarducci, who found the bones of Saint Peter

At that moment the funerary rites themselves begin. The remains are dressed in papal ceremonial vestments: the white miter, the red chasuble, the white wool pallium with black crosses. Thus composed, It is exhibited for the tribute of the faithful in St. Peter’s Basilica for three days. For nine days the cardinals celebrate the Novendiales, the funeral of the pope’s soul and are in charge of break the fisherman’s ring, One of the insignia that the pope receives at the beginning of his pontificate and that was once used as a wax seal for papal documents, the lead seal used to formalize apostolic letters is also broken. In the past, the body of the Pope was often embalmed and The heart and other nearby organs were preserved in specific vessels, many of which have survived.

The literal funeral is celebrated in Saint Peter’s with a Mass poenitentialis, in the presence of state delegations from around the world. In the end, the Pope’s body is placed in three boxes placed one inside another, one made of cypress, another of lead and another of walnut and, finally, He is buried in the Vatican Grottoes, unless the Pope has left other provisions in writing.

Several people walk on their knees along the Holy Stairs during its extraordinary opening, this Thursday in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Rome (Italy). The Vatican today discovered for the first time in three hundred years what is known as the Holy Stairs, which according to tradition Jesus of Nazareth climbed to be judged EFE/ Alessandro Di Meo

This ritual was carried out until the death of Pope Benedict XVI, but Pope Francis has changed it and he said it to the Spanish journalist Javier Martínez-Brocal who publishes the dialogue in his interview book. Pope Francis tells us about this topic: “(the wake) will be with dignity, like any Christian, but not on pillows. In my opinion, the current ritual was too busy. Holding two wakes seemed excessive to me. Let it be done alone and with the pope already in the coffin, as in all families. There will no longer be a ceremony for the closing of the coffin. Everything will be done in the same ceremony, as with any Christian. Besides, In my case they are going to have to take me to the Basilica of Santa María la Mayor. “When the funeral is over, let them take me there.”

But how many popes have there been? According to the official chronology, Pope Francis would be the 266th Pope in the history of the Church. Before himthere were 265 popes, a number that includes those who reigned in Rome and those who had Avignon as their headquarters. In fact, a closer look shows that there have been pontiffs who have reigned for more than one term, or who have been deposed and then re-elected by political events. Of these 266 Popes, 81 are venerated as saints, 10 have been beatified and 3 are in the process of beatification. Two popes, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, received the title of Doctor of the Church. As we have read, Pope Francis has moderated funeral ceremonies to make them as simple as possible. As he insists, “like in all families.”

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