A Sensational Discovery: Is The Tomb of Saint Peter Actually in the Catacombs?
25 Maggio 2021
Cari amici e nemici di Stilum Curiae, ieri Antonio Socci ha scritto su Libero un articolo interessante, sulla possibilità che la tomba – e forse le ossa – di Pietro si trovino in catacombe alla periferia di Roma. Un amico amerciano, appassionato a questo tema, ha voluto tradurlo nella sua lingua. Buona lettura.
Dear friends and enemies of Stilum Curiae, yesterday Antonio Socci wrote an interesting article in Libero about the possibility that the tomb – and perhaps the bones – of Peter are in catacombs on the outskirts of Rome. An American friend, passionate about this topic, wanted to translate it into his language. Happy reading.
By Antonio Socci
First published in Libero – 23 May 2021
It may be the archaeological discovery of the millennium and the most important in the entire history of the Church. If so, the Holy Year 2025 would be a unique event, because the Jubilee would become a true pilgrimage “ad limina Petri.”
What are we talking about? The identification of the probable place in Rome of the burial of Saint Peter (and perhaps even his mortal remains).
Three Italian scholars, Liberato De Caro, a researcher of the [Italian] National Research Council, Fernando La Greca, a professor at the University of Salerno, and Emilio Matricciani, an instructor at the Polytechnical Institue of Milan, have authored an accurate study in the international scientific review Heritage entitled “The search of St Peter’s memory ‘ad catacumbas’ in the cemeterial area ‘ad Duos Lauros’ in Rome.”
The burial site of the Apostle – according to this study – could possibly be in the great catacombs (which are partially unexplored) “ad Duos Lauros” in the Topignattara district [southeast of Rome’s Termini train station].
It is in the outskirts of Rome, along the Via Casilina, which in the 1950s housed the shantytowns immortalized by Pier Paolo Pasolini in Ragazzi di vita. The film Accattone is also set for the most part in these neighborhoods.
The district is dominated by the huge Mausoleum of Saint Helena whose ceiling is made with terracotta amphorae, called “pignatte” in popular jargon, hence the toponym “Torre delle pignatte” and then Torpignattara. Little is known about the extensive catacombs beneath it.
Why is the tomb of the mother Constantine, the one who Christianized the Roman Empire and changed history forever, located here?
In reality, in this area, which belonged to the “equites singulares” of Maxentius, Constantine had a great basilica built (which no longer exists today) over the Christian catacombs and also the mausoleum for himself as well as for his mother (although later he died in Constantinople and so was buried there).
But why did the Emperor construct this basilica and want to be buried there along with his mother? There is a secret that has been hidden there for almost two millennia: the presence of the body of the prince of the Apostles in those catacombs.
Our three scholars, before arriving at their conclusions, recall the scavi or excavations carried out between 1940 and 1949 under the altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, where it was traditionally believed that the tomb of the Apostle was located.
At that time a small monument from the 2nd century was unearthed, which marked the place of Peter’s martyrdom, there in the Vatican Circus. This small monument is the “trophacoeum” mentioned in a letter by the Roman presbyter Gaius written at the time of Pope Zephyrinus (199-217). The archaeologists of Pius XII, in 1949, thus maintained that they had found the tomb, or at least the first tomb, of Peter – but not his bones.
In the following years, the epigraphist Margherita Guarducci thought she had found the bones of Peter in the ruins unearthed in the scavi. But Father Ferrua, S.J. who was present throughout the work, always opposed this identification.
Guarducci maintained that she had found the proof of her discovery in a miniscule piece of graffiti, with fragments of some small letters, where she claimed to read reference to the name of Peter. The arguments, including arguments about this fragment of plaster (which today has been dated to the first half of the third century) were endless and never arrived at any certain conclusion.
NOT ONLY AN ARCHEOLOGICAL THRILLER
The Church never made any official pronouncement about this archaeological research. But the argument is still a hot one, and not only for archeologists.
In fact, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over the universal Church (that is, the papacy itself) is beased on the fact that the popes succeed, in the Roman episcopate, the man to whom Jesus conferred the primacy:
“And I say to you: You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and all that you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and all that you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).
This topic became explosive with Martin Luther in the 16th century. The Protestants, in order to contest the papacy, began to question the historical fact of the presence of Peter in Rome and thus of his episcopate and his martyrdom in the City.
But, to tell the truth, no locality – except Rome – has ever claimed the event of the martyrdom of Peter and the historical witnesses to the presence (and martyrdom) of the Apostle in the capital of the Empire, at the head of the Christian community there, are innumerable.
Apart from the First Letter of Peter himself in the New Testament (contested because, like other Christian authors, it calls Rome “Babylon”), there is unanimous attestation to Peter being Bishop of Rome by the writings of Pope Clement (A.D. 96), then Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 107), then Irenaeus of Lyons (c. A.D. 180), Dionysius the bishop of Corinth (around A.D. 170), Tertullian (around A.D. 200), Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 200) up to Saint Jerome and Eusebius of Caesarea (in the 4th century). Thus there is a unanimous and incontestable historical tradition.
Nevertheless, over the course of the centuries, the “Queen of Proofs” has also been sought for, that is, the burial place of the Apostle in Rome. This was the objective of the excavations or scavi done at the direction of Pius XII in the last century.
Today the experts, even granting that in ancient times the Vatican niche may have held the body of Saint Peter, believe that his remains were later moved “ad catacumbas” (first because of the persecutions, later because of barbarian raids on the City).
In fact, in the Chronograph of the year 354 (that is, the Roman Calendar), we find that “the commemoration of Saint Peter was ad catacumbas, not on the Vatican hill,” as our three scholars recall in Heritage.
De Caro, La Greca and Matricciani analyze the 6th century Liber Pontificalis, in which all of the biographies of the popes were gathered along with archival documents of the previous centuries, and they discover that, among all of the ancient Roman basilicas whose construction is attributed to Constantine, (for example Saint Peter’s, Saint John in Lateran, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme), the only one that was definitely built by him is precisely that of Tor Pignattara (which no longer exists today) where he also constructed a Mausoleum for his mother.
The catacombs over which this basilica was built are called Saints Marcellinus and Peter, two minor martyrs of the 4th century. De Caro, La Greca and Matricciani demonstrate that actually in antiquity the order of the names was reversed and “Peter” was in fact the Prince of the Apostles, in whose honor the catacombs were named and – according to the most ancient copy of the Liber Pontificalis – also the Basilica “ad duos lauros” (which is thus the true Constantinian Basilica of Saint Peter).
This would mean that this basilica was in fact the location of the tomb of the Apostle Peter, and it was next to Peter that Constantine wanted to be buried, along with his mother.
The three scholars also document a significant amount of sepulchral epigraphy about Peter in these catacombs, dating to the middle of the 4th century, and a fresco depicting Saint Peter holding a scroll.
Based on complicated calculations about the layout of the Basilica, the three authors maintain finally that they have identified the crypt, which is still unexplored, where the tomb of the Apostle could be located. Will they now be able to do excavations?
One last detail (which is beyond the scope of this study). During the years when the excavations were being done under Saint Peter’s, Pius XII asked Maria Valtorta, a mystic he esteemed, where the tomb of the Apostle is located, and she replied that it is in the catacombs “ad duos lauros” in Torpignattara and that she had seen his mummified remains in a vision, with his hands holding an ancient parchment. Valtorta also described the crypt.
The discovery of the tomb of Peter would be an extraordinary event. Paul VI said that the bones of Peter, for the Church, are like gold. It is in fact his very flesh that touched and embraced the Savior of the world.
First published in Libero – 23 May 2021
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