Finding Peter

Jared Staudt

On November 24, 2013, Pope Francis displayed St. Peter’s bones publicly for the first time. This momentous occasion culminated the incredible 70-year process of discovery and authentication of the relics. The bones now thought to belong to the Apostle Peter were caught up in tumultuous conflict between two archeologists: accidentally discovered, placed in storage for roughly twenty years, received a short period of authentication and veneration under Paul VI, were returned to storage for decades after Paul’s death, until Pope Benedict XVI began a process to reconsider their authenticity.

On June 29, we will celebrate the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Apostles who centered the Church in Rome through their ministry and martyrdom there. The Church in Rome, including two of its major basilicas, was “built on the foundation of the apostles” (Ephesians 2:20), preserving their authority and celebrating the sacraments over their tombs. After excavating under the altar of St. Paul’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI authenticated the bones discovered there as Paul’s in 2009. Those lucky enough to have taken the Scavi Tour under St. Peter’s Basilica have entered into the ancient necropolis over which Constantine built his grand basilica. This area remained largely untouched until the death of Pope Pius XI in 1939, when a worker fell into one of the ancient tombs while preparing for Pius’ burial.

The remarkable and tortuous tale of the discovery of Peter’s bones has been told before, particularly by John Walsh’s The Bones of St. Peter (Sophia, 2011 reprint). Bestselling author John O’Neill felt compelled to tell the story again, despite overwhelming health obstacles, to add some important unknown details. His new book, The Fisherman’s Tomb: The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search (OSV, 2018), not only continues the narrative into the pontificate of Francis, describing the ping pong of Vatican archeological politics in the fight over Peter’s bones, but also brings the narrative to the United States.

The uniqueness of O’Neill’s account derives from the previously unknown support of Houston’s oil tycoon George Strake, who financed not only the excavation to find Peter, but many other crucial projects of the Holy See. O’Neill claims that Strake also financed the Holy See’s efforts to rescue Jews and Allied prisoners during World War II and to counter the rise of Communism afterwards, financing new parishes and schools throughout Italy. Strake made his immense fortune by discovering a large oil reserve outside of Houston and determined to give away as much of it as he could before he died. Not only did he finance extraordinary projects for the Holy Father, but he also endowed the Pius XII Memorial Library at St. Louis University to honor the Pope who began the excavation and to preserve an extensive microfilm collection of the treasures of the Vatican Library.

We find a group of three priests central to the narrative, infelicitously dubbed the “Three Amigos” by O’Neill, who worked to support the excavation under St. Peter’s. This threesome included Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Paul VI, and two American priests, Walter Carroll and Joseph McGeough (who later became an Archbishop and Apostolic Nuncio). It would have been more tactful to stick to his terminology of “the three Americans” to refer to the incredible work supported by Strake with Carroll and McGeough as intermediaries to the Holy See (105). One remarkable tidbit comes from the future Paul VI’s quiet visit to Colorado to visit Strake at his Glen Eyrie estate outside of Colorado Springs (109).

O’Neill also paints the picture of Margherita Guarducci, the archeological hero of the story, who took over the excavations under St. Peter’s after the mishaps of the initial team (led by her rival Father Ferrua). She used her expertise in epigraphy, the interpretation of ancient inscriptions, to crack the code leading to the correct location of St. Peter’s bones, after other bones had mistakenly been attributed to the Apostle (111). The initial excavation had overlooked the importance of the Graffiti Wall, which contained the inscription, “Peter is here,” in favor of the more centrally located Trophy of Gaius. The bones identified by Guarducci had been buried previously under the Trophy, but relocated, probably for safety, and forensic tests revealed them to be from a man in his 60s of robust build, draped in purple imperial style cloth from the first centuries AD, and with his feet severed in a sign of crucifixion.

The Fisherman’s Tomb helps to complete the story of how we found St. Peter under the basilica built in his honor. The book contains some small inaccuracies, repetitiveness, and overreaching analogies that deflect from its central focus, but nonetheless provides an important narrative. It can help us to discover the centrality of the Apostle Peter for his upcoming feast day and may inspire us to make our own pilgrimage to find and venerate his relics.

COMING UP: Past 25 years remembered, next 25 anticipated at More Than You Realize conference

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“Be not afraid!”

This was the rallying cry at the Aug. 11 More Than You Realize conference, echoing the very same call St. John Paul II gave exactly 25 years ago when he visited Denver for World Youth Day in 1993.

Over 5,000 faithful from across the Archdiocese of Denver filled the seats of the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland at what was the largest Catholic gathering in Colorado since WYD ’93. The all-day conference was presented in both English and Spanish tracks, featured a dynamic lineup of renowned Catholic speakers, and culminated in a powerful commissioning Mass.

The name More Than You Realize and consequently, the logo resembling an eyechart, stems from the idea that almost everything may appear a certain way at surface level, but upon closer inspection, it can be more than one realizes and seen in a different light. This is especially true when it comes to the Catholic Church.

Over 5,000 gathered at the Budweiser Events Center Aug. 11 for the More Than You Realize conference, which celebrated the last 25 years since World Youth Day in Denver and looked to the next 25. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

In planning for nearly two years, pastors from each parish of the archdiocese hand-picked those parishioners and members of their community who they wished to attend the conference, which revolved around the idea of discipleship. Through engaging videos and talks given by speakers such as Chris Stefanick, Luis Soto and Dr. Edward Sri, attendees were invited to join a new movement of discipleship within the archdiocese, echoing the one sparked 25 years ago at World Youth Day.

“[I] had a great rejuvenating time at the More Than You Realize Conference,” said Alex Martinez, a parishioner at St. Pius X Parish. “I am excited to see the MTYR movement take shape.”

Brenda Garrett, a parishioner of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception said, “It was an amazing event, so blessed my pastor Father Ron from the Cathedral Basilica sent me. I am so proud to be part of this movement.”

The key to evangelization

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford spoke before Mass began about the impact of World Youth Day 1993 and the challenges the Church faces today.

“What does the summer of ’93 teach us about our present circumstances in 2018?” the cardinal asked. “The Holy Spirit was sent out in a special mission to our Church in 1993. The power of that sending was unexpected and disorienting to me as archbishop and to most others.”

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford speaks during the More Than You Realize conference. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

But despite urban violence, threats of boycotts, organized protests and other issues prior to World Youth Day 1993, “a fundamental change took place in the Church of Denver,” said Cardinal Stafford, “but not only here — among the young people who came throughout the world, [and] even the Holy Father.

“Above all, our Church was transformed,” he said.

Cardinal Stafford said that to evangelize those who don’t know the Gospel, we first need “…a deep awareness of the delight of the Father taking in each of us as baptized men and women,” he said.

“I would urge you to think deeply and to pray deeply about realizing how delighted God is in you — each of you — because you are received by the Father as being [part of] the body of his Son, who is beloved.”

‘Jesus is much more than you realize’

In his homily given in both English and Spanish, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila also touched on what World Youth Day 1993 means for us today.

“The world likes to tell us many things about ourselves,” he said, “and not many of them today are good or uplifting. Just look at the distorted image of beauty that is prevalent today, let alone the distortions of what it means to be a human person…

“The devil is certainly having a field day in a world that has abandoned God, and even in some members of the Church who have a weak faith in Jesus,” he said.

But despite similar issues taking place in 1993, the pope brought to Denver a message of hope.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila celebrates the commissioning Mass that closed out the conference. (photo by Andrew Wright)

“When St. John Paul II spoke to the youth gathered for the prayer vigil on Saturday night at Cherry Creek State Park, he reminded them that God and a much bigger role for them to play in history,” said Archbishop Aquila.

That message is just as important today, within an archdiocese and Church that stand at a crossroads, the archbishop said.

“We have an opportunity to make a major impact for Jesus Christ, even as the surrounding culture is becoming less Christian.”

The pope opened the doors for those who attended to become greater disciples of Christ — not just directly after World Youth Day, but forever.

“St. John Paul II believed in retrospect that a revolution had taken place in Denver,” said the archbishop. “We, today, are the inheritors of this spiritual revolution, and we must not be afraid to put out into the deep to let our nets down for a catch.

“Jesus is much more than you realize. The Church is more than you realize. And your role in the plan of God is much more than you realize or [can] even imagine,” he said.

“And so, I beg you as your shepherd today to open your hearts to Jesus and speak heart-to-heart with him who loves you most.”

Aaron Lambert, Moira Cullings and Vladimir Mauricio-Perez contributed to this report.