While we were waiting in line this morning for the papal audience, Msgr. Tony Frontiero, a priest from Manchester and currently working and living in Rome, showed up and presented us with three tickets to the Scavi Tour. All I knew of the Scavi Tour was that my wife strongly suggested that we go on it. The only problem is that the wait time for tickets is usually a year as only 120 people a day (of the 15,000 visitors to Saint Peter's) are allowed on the tour! But, Msgr. Fronterio was able to obtain three tickets at the last minute. Mrs. Henning, David Gagnon, and I were the lucky ones who were able to take the tour. I heard over again how amazing it was but I didn't know why...until we got on the tour.
It turns out that the Scavi (Latin for excavation) Tour is a look at a Necropolis below Saint Peter's Basilica that dates back to the first century AD. Saint Peter's was built on the bones of the Apostle Peter - the first pope - who was crucified in 64 AD in Rome during the Christian Persecution. Fellow Christians took his body and secretly buried it on on the slope of the Vatican Hill in Rome. This tradition was preserved by Christians and once their faith was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313 AD, the first Saint Peter's Basilica was built over the bones by the Emperor Constantine. However, in order to build the basilica, Constantine had to build over ancient cities of the dead. Roman pagans built cities in which to bury their dead which was on the same site as the bones of Peter. This basilica was in place until the current one was completed in 1626.
In 1939, Pope Pius XI died and asked that he be buried "on the bones of Peter." Now no one had ever seen the bones or burial plot of Peter but tradition was that the basilica was built on its remains. The altar, it was believed, was right above his bones. As people began to build the burial place for Pius XI, they came across by complete accident the Necropolis that was, until then, unknown to anyone. They discovered that an entire city lay underneath Saint Peter's! They excavated for 10 years cleaning it out and preserving what they could. What they left is a pretty intact system of sidewalks and crypts right under the basilica...and the bones of Saint Peter.
The bones were not formally identified as the bones of Peter until 1968 after extensive archeological and scientific work. It was Pope Paul VI who declared the bones to be that of Saint Peter.
As the tour guide was explaining the process by which they determined the bones were indeed those of Peter, I began to tear up. For my entire life, I had heard about Peter as the first pope, how he was killed, etc. And now, here I was at his final burial site...it all made so real. I glanced at his bones for about 10 seconds and made the sign of the cross....it was so amazing. Plus, to be walking on sidewalks once walked on by first and second century Romans and later built over by Constantine's men was a tad mind blowing.
Today was our last “formal” (i.e. receptions, papal events, etc) day. Tomorrow and Saturday will be all sight seeing. There is so much more to see and we especially want to see the major basilicas in Rome. But first the priests from Manchester are celebrating Mass in one of the side altars at Saint Peter's at 7am so it's off to bed I go!