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: Archdiocese of Denver’s news publications honored with 15 Catholic Press Awards

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Coverage of the More Than You Realize conference and reporting on social justice issues were among the 15 honors the Catholic Press Association awarded the Denver Catholic and El Pueblo Catolico at the recent Catholic media conference in Florida, June 18-21.

Bishop Jorge Rodriguez was also awarded first place for a regular column by a bishop or archbishop in a Spanish publication.

The Denver Catholic received seven awards, including first place best news writing on a local or regional event for the staff’s collaborative coverage of the MTYR conference June 11, 2018, at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland.

El Pueblo Catolico received eight awards, including first place for reporting on social justice issues for a story on preventing suicide, and second place for in-depth analysis for a story on the debates surrounding “caravans” of immigrants coming to the United States.

Staff writer Vladimir Mauricio-Pérez, who was recently named the new editor of El Pueblo Catolico, took home four awards – two for articles in the Denver Catholic and two for articles in El Pueblo. For the Denver Catholic, he received a second-place editorial award for a story on the Facebook privacy scandal, and an honorable mention award for a feature story on Blind Faith Brewing.

The publications were also honored with awards for layout, design, interviews and reports.

“I want to congratulate the staff of the Denver Catholic and El Pueblo Catolico for their accomplishments over the past year and the much-deserved recognition they’ve received for their incredible talents,” said Aaron Lambert, Managing Editor. “More importantly, I am thankful for each of their witnesses to Jesus Christ, without whom we would not be able to carry out this mission we’ve been entrusted with. Last but not least, I want to thank the faithful of the Archdiocese of Denver for their support, encouragement, comments and feedback, and most of all, for allowing us to tell your stories.”

Denver Catholic

1st Place – Best News Writing on a Local or Regional Event – “Be Not Afraid” https://denvercatholic.org/past-25-years-remembered-next-25-anticipated-at-more-than-you-realize-conference/

2nd Place – Best Editorial on a National or International Issue – “Facebook privacy scandal a wake-up call for Catholics” (Vladimir Mauricio-Perez) https://denvercatholic.org/facebook-privacy-scandal-a-wake-up-call-for-catholics-experts-say/

2nd Place – Best Annual Report http://read.uberflip.com/i/1079667-financial-report-2018

2nd Place – Most Effective Use of Small Space – Bethlehem Handicrafts (Simona Fava, Kim Grace)

3rd Place – Best Print Circulation Promotion Campaign – Julia Greeley Anniversary Mass (Simona Fava)

Honorable Mention – Beat Feature Writing – “Blind Faith Brewing: the new Catholic taproom in town” (Vladimir Mauricio-Perez) https://denvercatholic.org/blind-faith-brewing-new-catholic-taproom-town/

Honorable Mention – Best Layout of Article or Column – “From the Passover Seder to the Eucharist” (Vladimir Mauricio-Perez, Simona Fava)

El Pueblo Catolico

1st Place – Best Reporting on Social Justice Issues – “El suicidio es prevenible, pongamos manos a la obra” (Mavi Barraza)

1st Place – Best Regular Column by a Bishop or Archbishop – “Joven, Cristo te necesita” (Bishop Jorge Rodriguez)

2nd Place – Best In-Depth Analysis – “Mas allá del debate político la ‘caravana’ son nuestros hermanos” (Vladimir Mauricio-Pérez)

2nd Place – Best Coverage – ‘”Bautiza a tu hijo’ Insistió su amiga. Hoy él es sacerdote.” (Carmen Elena Villa)

3rd Place – Best Reporting – “Propuesta de matrimonio en una obra de teatro” (Carmen Elana Villa)

Honorable Mention – Best Interview – “Monseñor Romero me enseñó que vale la pena sacrificarse por el Señor” (Caren Elena Villa)

Honorable Mention – Best Personality Profile – “Maria Antonia: madre que siempre supo decir sí a Dios”(Vladimir Mauricio-Pérez)

Honorable Mention – Best Cover Magazine or Newspaper – El Pueblo Catolico (Simona Fava)