Under the high altar in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome is another altar… and underneath that altar is another altar… and underneath that altar is a giant box about fifteen feet square, made out of the precious stone porphyry, and inside of that box is an ancient brick wall that dates back to the first century A.D., and in the side on that ancient brick wall is a burial niche, and inside that niche was found, wrapped in purple cloth reserved on pain of death to the Roman emperors, the bones of an elderly man, in his 60s or 70s, that date back to the first century. On the brick wall were also found hundreds of graffiti with phrases such as petros eni, Peter is here, or the Chi Rho symbol altered so it looks like a key (as in “keys of the kingdom”).
St. Peter’s church is built on a hill, known as the Vatican, at the base of which was an ancient Roman circus. In the middle of the circus was an Egyptian obelisk, once twice as tall as it is now, that now stands in the center of St. Peter’s square. The circus was an oblong with a long middle area that ran down the center – very similar to the circus maximus that still exists today in Rome. In the center of the circus was the obelisk, and the chariot racers made their circuits of the center area much like Judas ben Hur does in the film of the same name. In the center area, Christians were routinely executed for “halftime entertainment” – the most colorful exercise of which was when they dipped the Christians in pitch and then lit them on fire. The road leading to the Vatican circus was a cemetery, lined with tombs.
The Romans had the bizarre habit of building their tombs along public roads so the monuments to their past glory could be admired by the citizens. When, as the ancient sources tell us, the Apostle Peter was crucified upside down in the center of the Vatican circus, probably around the year A.D. 64, the disciples took his body and buried it in the road cemetery right outside – marking the spot with special signs that only the Christian community would know. For hundreds of years, Christians came quietly and secretly to this grave to honor the leader of the Roman Christian community… until, in the early 300s, a decision was made by the Emperor Constantine to build a church over the site.
The problem was that the Vatican circus was at the base of a hill, so the engineering-minded Romans built an enormous retaining wall, dozens of feet high, and then filled in the space with soft dirt, covering the circus and the streets lined with tombs. On top of this level area, now known as St. Peter’s square, they built the first St. Peter’s basilica, which lasted for more than a thousand years… until, around the time of the Protestant Reformation, the popes commissioned great Italian artists, such as Michelangelo, to build a new basilica on the ruins of the crumbling old one. To finance construction, they sold indulgences… which led Martin Luther to launch the Reformation. The money was raised, the new church was slowly built, and people forgot about the ancient cemetery buried beneath the old basilica… until 1939. In that year, workmen digging below the church, to create a new crypt for the recently deceased Pope Pius XI, accidentally punched a hole in the floor of the crypts where they bury popes beneath St. Peter’s… and looked down and saw, dozens of feet below, a necropolis, or city of the dead, undisturbed for 1,800 years. Like Pompei south of the Vatican, this ancient necropolis was like going back in time. The first century streets go on for miles beneath St. Peter’s square. In was in this ancient necropolis that archaeologists discovered, in the 1950s, the bones of St. Peter, wrapped in a purple shroud and hidden in a burial niche inside a brick wall… inside an enormous marble and porphyry box… directly beneath the high altar in St. Peter’s basilica.
The papacy is the oldest continuous monarchy in history, dating back at least to the second century and, depending upon how you interpret the evidence, perhaps to Peter himself. Traditionally, popes – known as the servant of the servants of God – serve until death. There have been 266 popes… and today, for the first time in 598 years, a reigning pope has announced his resignation. In a few weeks, perhaps more, the see of Peter will be vacant (sede vacante), and the 118 cardinals eligible to vote will gather in the Sistine Chapel to begin the difficult task choosing a successor to guide the world’s 1 billion Catholics and other friends of the Catholic Church on into the confusing 21st century.
The mission of the pope is, and always has been, to be a guardian of the partheke, the “deposit” of Faith, handed on over the centuries… and to do so in a way that it can be communicated and understood anew.
The new pope will have his hands full. In the entertaining prescient 2011 Italian film by Nanni Moretti, Habemus Papam (“We Have a Pope”) about the election of a reluctant pope who ends up resigning, a nice touch was that we heard all of the cardinals praying: Please, Lord, not me… anyone but me!