Finally managed to visit the Vatican exhibits in the Asian Civilization Museum at Empress Place last Sunday. Sure glad i did. Awesome: St Peter's Basilica was literally (and not just symbolically) built upon St Peter -- according a National Geographic documentary called Inside the Vatican. Transcript of "Part II: St Peter's Basilica" is appended below:
"ST. PETER'S BASILICA is a monument to Peter whom Jesus tapped as the chief apostle, declaring that Peter was the rock on which he would build the church.
"Because Rome was the capital of the empire, Peter, along with the apostle Paul, came to the city to spread the faith, early in the first millennium. But early Christians were often persecuted for their beliefs and, according to church tradition, in A.D. 64, the apostle Peter was arrested, brought to one of the great imperial circuses in Rome and martyred on an inverted cross. His body was taken outside the walls of the arena and there, on the side of what was called the Vatican Hill, he was buried, perhaps in a small roofed grave.
"ALMOST THREE HUNDRED years later, Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, declared that a great church be built on the site of the tomb of St. Peter which had evolved from a simple grave to a small shrine. Anchored on the grave of the apostle, the first St. Peter's Basilica incorporated the original shrine into the altar floor. But twelve hundred years later, when the first basilica was replaced, the details of Peter's burial had been forgotten.
"The Vatican had long held the tradition that Peter was buried under the basilica, but even as late as the 1930s, they didn't really have any proof. Then, in 1939, workers renovating the grottoes beneath St. Peter's, the traditional burial area of the popes, made a stunning find. Just below the floor level, they discovered an ancient Roman grave. It soon became clear that there wasn't just one grave, but an entire city of the dead.
"After many months of digging, the excavators came to a section of older graves, near the area underneath the high altar. Directly beneath the altar, they found a large burial site and a wall painted red. In a niche connected to that wall, they found the bones of a man.
"More than 20 years later, in 1968, Pope Paul VI announced that those bones belonged to St. Peter."
(Image above is taken from Luacus Curtius website: Circus of Nero, plan superposed with the Basilicas, showing the tomb of Peter, and text by Rodolfo Lanciani describing the largely inadvertent archaeology.)
There's something amazingly moving when what seemed merely symbolic or mystical is suddenly literal as well. From Sunday, after watching the whole of Inside the Vatican (saw only the second half on TV months ago), Jesus' words to Peter, "You are Peter, and on this rock I build my church..." began to have very special meaning. In particular, when the narrator Martin Sheen spoke of the most mystical moment when the pope laid his hand on the head of a newly ordained bishop on the spot just above Peter's grave... I was really touched.
What Martin Sheen said next seemed to be a paraphrase of this, "Our two-thousand-year history traced right to Peter and Jesus is not a distant mystery, but one which is connected to us here and now."
btw, my friend (a non-Catholic) was also very touched. (A pity she didn't come earlier to watch the documentary.) After the tour of the Vatican exhibits, she said that now she sees her suffering (physical disability over the past years although she's still so young) in terms of "passion" -- that perhaps she had been too "passionate"! ;-) What a powerful word!