Finding Peter

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”