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: Why stay in the Church?

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash