Who Knew Old Bones Could Be So Fascinating?

 I’ll be honest: the idea of relics has always challenged my not-raised-Catholic self. I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around why you would keep parts of people, you know, around.

It just seems…gross.

It’s conflicting. Even as I’m sort of disgusted, I’m also…intrigued.

I mean, there is something fascinating about bones that have been around for years and years and years. And bones that belonged to St. Peter? I can’t be grossed out enough to stay away from this.

Last Sunday, the Vatican unveiled bones that there’s good reason to believe belong to our first pope. CNN, NBC, and The Guardian contend that these are controversial remains. In fact, they miss the point.

The point isn’t whether these are really St. Peter’s bones. The point is the prayer we’re called to, the profession of faith they inspire us to make.

I had a chance to speak with Thomas Craughwell recently, who’s spent 30 years studying and writing about the saints. I couldn’t resist asking that very question: How sure are you that these are actually the bones of St. Peter?

Craughwell, who’s well-known as an author and speaker about the saints and has discussed them on both CNN and EWTN, replied without hesitation.

No one can say with absolute 100 percent certainty that these are St. Peter’s bones. There is no way to perform a DNA test, for example. That said, for nearly 2000 years the Christians of Rome have come to this spot to venerate the remains of St. Peter. The exterior walls of his tomb and of walls nearby are covered with inscriptions invoking St. Peter. One of them is a Greek inscription, “PETR ENI,” which means, “Peter is within.” Furthermore, at no time did any other place ever claim to be the place where St. Peter was buried. So, I think we can be reasonably certain that the bones found inside the tomb in 1942 are the bones of St. Peter.

As it happens, Craughwell’s upcoming book deals with this very topic: St. Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found…and Then Lost and Found Again (Image Books, due out in January 2014). He was kind enough to share some of the history of the archeological expedition that discovered the bones with me.

In 1940, while renovating the Vatican Grottoes below the basilica’s sanctuary, workmen discovered an ancient Roman cemetery beneath the church. With the permission of Pope Pius XII, a team of archaeologists began a full-scale dig that eventually led them to a modest little mausoleum beneath the high altar. Considering the splendid mausolea they had found, there was nothing remarkable about his little tomb, except for a Greek inscription scratched on one of its walls: “PETR ENI,” “PETER IS WITHIN.”

The “rest of the story,” as it is, can be found in St. Peter’s Bones. I was less likely to read that before I interviewed Craughwell, to be honest: my curiosity is piqued now!

The bones are in clear plexiglass boxes. They’re kept where they’ve been for nearly 200 years: the tomb of St. Peter, in the Scavi. There’s restricted access to the Scavi — groups of 15 or less, led on a guided tour. Though you have to reserve a spot on these tours months in advance, Craughwell has me convinced that, if I ever make it to Rome, it’s well worth it.