As war raged over Europe in the 1940's and the Nazis held virtually every Country in Europe in its tight grip of fear and terror, the city of Rome and its inhabitants were not spared this enslavement. The dictator, Mussolini, had entered into a war pact with Adolf Hitler and in time the Nazi storm troopers were marching down the via Appia into the Eternal City.
Pope Pius XII was keenly aware of the precarious situation that he and the Church faced in this dangerous situation. While Vatican City, of course, claimed neutrality and was narrowly freed from the terror of occupation forces within its hallowed precincts, nevertheless, the situation was precarious. The Holy Father through various diplomatic means attempted to provide safe shelter for members of the underground who were maintaining ties with the allies in their attempt to ultimately bring about the liberation of the city of Rome and all of Europe.
In the midst of incredible danger that was taking place “above ground”, there was another story - equally historic yet far more peaceful - taking place “below ground” - in fact directly under St. Peter’s Basilica. While the war raged on, Pius XII had ordered extensive excavations under the most well-known Church in all the world. Tradition has it that St. Peter’s Basilica, which in fact is the third Church to be built on this site, stands directly above the tomb of the prince of the Apostles and first bishop of Rome, St. Peter. The venerable story that has been passed down from one generation of Christians to the next is that St. Peter, having traveled to the center of the Roman Empire and having preached the Gospel of Christ, eventually died a martyrs’ death on Vatican Hill - crucified up side down - unworthy, as he said, to be crucified like his savior.
After the execution, his body was reverently taken down and buried in a small pagan cemetery not far from the place of his execution. Within a short time, his burial spot became a place of pilgrimage for early Christians who revered the man whose three fold denial of the Lord was transformed by his threefold profession of love which eventually would be a love unto death.
In order that undue suspicion would not be drawn to this place of veneration, a pagan altar was built above the tomb - to mislead the pagan authorities as to the real reason for the gathering of pilgrims to this holy spot. Yet, on a marble slab supporting the pagan altar, a devout pilgrim had inscribed a graffito in Greek helping pilgrims identify this spot as the tomb of St. Peter - It simply said, “Peter is here”!
And so, each day while Roman Jews were hiding for fear of their lives, and resistance fighters were gathering in secret, archeologists were quietly unearthing one of the most amazing and significant archeological finds of the 20th century right below the great Basilica. They eventually unearthed a city of the dead - a necropolis dating back to the time of the early Christians and St. Peter himself. They unearthed the tombstones and ancient burial chambers and then to their utter amazement, came upon a small pagan altar, intact, with a slab of stone nearby covered with ancient graffiti. As scholars examined the stone, they found the words, “Peter is here”! Excavating around the site they discovered bones which later through forensic investigation would be determined to be those of man in late middle age, short in stature, dating to the time of St. Peter himself. This news was immediately brought to the Holy Father who visited the site himself and in prayer, knelt to venerate as Christians of old, this most venerable site directly below the high altar of St. Peter’s.
Following the war, news of this amazing archeological find was gradually made known to the public at large. The ancient necropolis has been almost completely excavated. Blessed Paul VI ordered that the bones not be removed, but rather remain intact, in what undoubtedly was the original tomb, so that pilgrims might come and give honor to the one whose feast together with that of St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, we remember and celebrate today.
To this day, the Feast that gathers us in celebration this day remains a holiday in the city of Rome. St. Paul, who also journeyed to Rome, was slain by the sword and buried outside the walls of the city of Rome.
While the history of this feast and the archaeology that surrounds it may fascinate us, we remember today not just interesting facts of history, but a profound theological truth. When the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised his followers that he would not leave us orphaned. He promised that He would remain with us always. Through the missionary zeal of those who have followed in the footsteps of St. Paul, and in the office of the one we call the successor to St. Peter, the universal Pastor of the Church, the Bishop of Rome - Peter and Paul remain with us still.
As a Church which is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, our roots are sunk deeply into a 2000 year heritage of belief. Yet, that belief while ever ancient, remains ever new. The heroes of our faith are not the dry and lifeless bones of the past, but the living and breathing flesh and blood of those men and women who join their response to that of Peter when asked by the Lord, “Do you love me?” - May we respond with them, now and always, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” To which, Jesus responds, “Then feed and tend my sheep”. May we do so with courage and gratitude for all those who have gone before us in faith.