A trip down under: Exploring the Vatican necropolis

By Caroline Hroncich 

VATICAN CITY — It was nearly 50 degrees in Vatican City, but you would never guess with the 98 percent humidity. You might ask yourself, is this normal November weather for Rome? Well if you’re a member of the excavations office at St. Peter’s Basilica, this is a daily reality.

Pope Francis holds reliquary containing relics of Apostle St. Peter during Mass in St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Pope Francis holds reliquary containing relics of Apostle St. Peter during Mass in St. Peter’s Square at Vatican (CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters) (Nov. 25, 2013)

That was just my experience on Nov. 25 as I stood facing the miniature replica of the original St. Peter’s Basilica, built by Constantine, at the beginning of my excavations tour. I’d heard lots of things about the tour of the Vatican necropolis and the tomb of St. Peter, most of which included “you shouldn’t go if you’re claustrophobic.”

But with the display of St. Peter’s bones by Pope Francis only one day before, I was excited to see what I was going to find beneath the giant halls of St. Peter’s Basilica.

After some explanation by the tour guide, myself and the other nine visitors ventured downward. It was difficult not to feel like an archaeologist as we wandered down the tiny hallways.

The noise of the street slowly melted away to a stony silence. We’d arrived in the necropolis, the city of the dead. The beginning of the tour focused on ancient Roman tombs, each one more impressive than the previous. Gorgeous red paint and intricate frescoes decorated the walls, with beautiful statues of family members, and urns for ashes of deceased family slaves.  At the end of the long hallway of monuments, we reached the only Christian tomb in the necropolis for a young child who’d died at barely two years of age. Decorated with images from Bible verses like Jonah and the whale, this monument was one of the most modest, but perhaps the most powerful. I secretly wondered if the family, who’d sadly buried their young child, knew they laid them to rest so close to St. Peter.

Relics of St. Peter the Apostle pictured on altar before Pope Francis celebrates Mass at St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Relics of St. Peter the Apostle pictured on altar before Pope Francis celebrates Mass at St. Peter’s Square at Vatican (CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters) (Nov. 25, 2013

As we reached the tomb of St. Peter we began to hear haunting singing radiating through the vents from the basilica above. It was incredibly appropriate, considering our proximity to the tomb.

The remains of St. Peter were found in a wall, called the “Graffiti Wall.” Our tour guide explained it is called this because of the amount of writing on the wall, some of which helped archaeologists to identify Peter. Inscriptions such as “Peter is here” and “Peter in peace.”

I got chills when she read the writing on the wall, and started to imagine people, thousands of years before myself, coming to the tomb to offer prayers. It was incredibly humbling. I was the last person in my group to peer through at the bones of the saint, and I looked back two times more before I left the tomb.

Getting the chance to tour the Vatican necropolis was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After my tour, I scanned through the online virtual tour the excavations office provides, but nothing is better than actually being there. I feel incredibly lucky being one of the mere 250 people allowed in each day to experience the necropolis. With only a few weeks left in Rome, and with CNS, I know exactly what I will be giving thanks for around the table this Thursday.

Editor’s note: Caroline Hroncich is a student at Villanova University and she is interning at Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau for the semester.

4 Responses

  1. For the many who cannot get to Rome or tour the necropolis itself, the Vatican should produce a video of the walk-through that is permitted the tourists, including a view inside Peter’s tomb. Views of the inside of the tomb are not found on other videos of this area.

  2. Thanks for another lovely piece, CH. It was a most moving scene to see Jesus linked with Francis Bishop of Rome at the Creed on Sunday, with Peter’s relics as the link.

  3. I went through it in October. I was kind of disappointed in that they provide tour guides by language and ours was an Italian with a think accent that was very hard to understand. The English group in front of us (they limit the groups to 12 people at a time) spoke perfect English and I wished I was with that group. That aside though it was a fascinating experience

  4. A very interesting story clarifying where we catholics have come from.

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