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: Synod: Topics from the final document on young people

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After intense days of dialogue and discussion among bishops and invited young people, the Synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment came to a close in Rome on Oct. 28.

Here we offer a brief summary of the document which was approved a few days before the closing. It contains 167 points and proposals which seek to transmit the Word of God and address the needs of young people throughout the world.

The citations provided are not approved English translations of the document. The document has only been released in Italian.

Sexuality

The document states that the Church works “to communicate the beauty of the Christian vision of corporeality and sexuality.” It asks for more adequate methods to communicate it. “An anthropology of affectivity and sexuality, capable of also giving a fair value to chastity, must be proposed to young people.” To do so, “it is necessary to tend to the formation of pastoral workers, so that they may be credible [witnesses], beginning with the maturity of their own affective and sexual dimensions.”

Accompaniment

Another recommendation asks for better accompaniment to help young people “read their own story” and live out their baptismal call “freely” and “responsibly.” The document also asks for better accompaniment of people with same-sex attraction, reaffirming the “decisive anthropological relevance of the difference and reciprocity between man and woman,” and considering it “reductive” to define a person’s identity based on his or her sexual orientation.

Women

The difference between men and women can be a realm “in which many forms of dominion, inclusion and discrimination can emerge,” elements the Church must free itself from, the document says. It says that among the youth, there is a desire for a “greater acknowledgment and valuing” of women in the Church and society. Furthermore, it says that the absence of the feminine voice and outlook “impoverishes” debate and the path of the Church, robbing it of a “beautiful contribution.”

Vocation

The final synodal document calls for a “true and specific vocational culture” and a “constant prayer commitment” for vocations. It affirms that the mission of many consecrated men and women who give of themselves to those in the peripheries of the world “manifests concretely the dedication of an outward Church.”

It highlights that the Church has always had a particular care for vocations to the priestly order, knowing that it is a “constituent element of her identity and necessary for the Christian life.” Moreover, the Synod acknowledges the condition of the single life, which, assumed with a logic of faith and self-gift, can lead to paths through which “the grace of baptism acts and directs toward that holiness we are all called to.”

“The Eucharistic celebration generates the communal life of the Church. It is the place for transmission of the faith and formation for mission,” the document states. Young people have shown “to appreciate and live with intensity authentic celebrations in which the beauty of the signs, the care for preaching and the communal involvement truly speak of God.”

It encourages that young people discover “the value of Eucharistic adoration as an extension of the celebration, in which contemplation and silent prayer can be lived out.”

Migration

The document expresses the Church’s preoccupation regarding those who “escape war, violence, political and religious persecutions, natural disasters … and extreme poverty.” In general, immigrants leave their countries in search of “opportunities for themselves and for their families” and are exposed to violence on their journey. Many leave with an idealized version of Western culture, “at times feeding it with unrealistic expectations that expose them to hard disappointments.”

The synodal fathers highlight the particular vulnerability of “unaccompanied migrant minors” and see that “it is necessary to decisively reject” a xenophobic mentality regarding migration events “frequently promoted and exploited for political ends.”

Featured image by L’Osservatore Romano