Our last site visit for the New Testament in the Eternal City course was to the excavations underneath St. Peter’s Basilica. Called the “Scavi San Pietro”, these 20th century archaeological excavations have revealed the ancient Roman cemetery under St. Peter’s Basilica and Square.
Begun in secret in the 1940’s during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, these excavations were not open to the public until the 1970’s and then only in a very limited way. Today a visit to the “Scavi” is a very exclusive tour in Rome that most people never experience, even if they live here. So, this was a very important site visit!
St. Peter was crucified in the Emperor Nero’s stadium or “circus” on the Vatican Hill about 64AD. Next to Nero’s stadium was a cemetery and St. Peter’s body was buried there. At first it was a very simple grave with clay tiles over it for protection from the elements. But in a very short time the early Christians added a more elaborate grave marker which was known as a “trophy”. About 200 AD a Roman priest named Gauis tells us that he “can show anyone the two “trophies” of the Apostles Peter and Paul… One is on the Via Ostia and one is on the Vatican Hill”. Gaius was speaking of the graves of the martyred apostles already as a site of pilgrimage for Christians the world over.
The traditional Christian pilgrimage to Rome to pray at the two tombs of the Apostles became known as the “ad limina apostolorum”. “Ad limina” means literally “to the thresholds of the Apostles”, that is, the thresholds of their tombs. In fact, it became a tradition very early on that all bishops must visit the tombs of the two “princes of the Apostles”, Peter and Paul, to be spiritually connected to the two founders of the Church at Rome.
One of the earliest titles for the Pope is “Successor of Peter and Paul”. And one of the responsibilities of the Pope in Rome is to be a “custodian of the tombs of the Apostles”. That is, the Pope must ensure that access to the tombs is given to pilgrims and that prayer and worship are unhindered at these holy sites.
We were told by our tour guide that Pope Francis is the first Pope to visit the entirety of these excavations under the basilica.
In our New Testament course this semester we have now visited both tombs of the Apostles, and so have completed the “ad limina apostolorum”, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls and the Basilica of St. Peter. What a great way to end the semester! St. Peter – pray for us!