The Vatican has announced a full slate of activities for the 2008-2009 jubilee year dedicated to St. Paul. But one thing NOT on the schedule is the re-opening of the apostle’s tomb.
At a Vatican press conference Monday, Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo said Pope Benedict personally decided not to attempt an invasive investigation of the sarcophagus believed to hold St. Paul’s remains — at least not during the Pauline year.
The main reason is that the marble sarcophagus lies buried beneath the main altar in the Rome Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, and unearthing it would require too much architectural destruction.
The tomb is enclosed by a wall, apparently built to protect the area from floods, and it would make excavation very difficult if not impossible.
For much the same reason, visitors during the Pauline year will be unable to imitate an ancient pilgrim practice of lowering pieces of cloth or other objects through a hole in the tomb, in order to create secondary relics.
Visitors will at least be able to see one side of the roughly cut sarcophagus, which lies beneath an inscription: “Paul Apostle Martyr.”
Cardinal Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo said the sarcophagus has apparently remained sealed since it was placed there in the fourth century.
Strangely, the tomb was virtually ignored in recent centuries, but interest was rekindled during the great pilgrimages of Holy Year 2000.
After several years of research, Vatican archeologists announced in 2006 that this was, indeed, the tomb of St. Paul. They based their identification on historical and scientific evidence, and said it didn’t really matter whether or not the sarcophagus still holds the saint’s relics.
It seemed to matter a little bit, though, because they tried to X-ray the sarcophagus. That didn’t work — its marble walls were too thick.
In any case, Pope Benedict seems to have little doubt about the question. When he went to the basilica in 2007, he said that according to the common opinion of the experts and unopposed tradition, the sarcophagus holds the remains of St. Paul.
PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI looks at the crypt which church officials believe to be the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle during an ecumenical prayer service in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome Jan. 25, 2007. The pope was accompanied by Cardinal Andrea Cor dero Lanza di Montezemolo, the archpriest of the basilica, seen pointing toward the crypt, and Benedictine Abbot Edmund Power of the Abbey of St. Paul’s, right. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)