From the Pastor – September 3, 2017

“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:16-19)

For most of my time living in Rome, I led pilgrims on a tour through the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica.  Known as the “Scavi,” the Italian name for excavations, the site contains a cemetery with tombs dating from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries.  Although many of the tombs are pagan, as the visit gets closer to the area under the main altar of St. Peter’s, we begin to see many signs of Christian burials.  The highlight of the tour is the area immediately under the altar where the Pope celebrates Mass on most Sundays in Rome.  There we find a series of shrines, one on top of the other.  The earliest tomb is a small hollow in the shape of a small pup tent located under a red colored plaster wall.  Attached to that wall is a small shrine consisting of two columns and a portico that can be reliably dated to the year 150 B.C.  Surrounding that shrine is a marble and porphyry mausoleum built during the reign of Constantine the Great (circa 325 A.D.).  On top of that mausoleum is an altar built by Pope Gregory the Great in about 600 A.D.  On top of and surrounding that altar is an altar built by Pope Callistus II in about 1120 A.D.  And on top of that altar is the current altar used by Pope Francis, dating from the pontificate of Pope Clement VIII in about 1600 A.D.

Although incredibly interesting for its archaeological significance, the site is perhaps more important for its spiritual significance.  For this site is no empty tomb, like the Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  No, this tomb contains bones.  Under all of these altars, inside of a wall, bones were found.  They were found to be the bones of a short, stocky man who lived in the 1st Century.  They are encrusted with the original soil of the Vatican Hill.  And they show evidence of having been accorded careful care, being buried wrapped in a gold entwined violet fabric.

As the Gospel this weekend tells us, Jesus told Peter that He would “build his Church” on him.  And what’s built on top of Peter’s bones?  Well, it’s the Vatican basilica dedicated to St. Peter.  As the 12 foot high letters around the inside of the dome of St. Peter’s reads “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it.”   If you like it in the Bible, that’s as literal as it gets.  The Basilica of St. Peter is literally built on top of the body of St. Peter.  But its spiritual origins are even stronger, having been built on his confession of faith:  “You are Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

(Rev. Msgr.) Christopher H. Nalty