VATICAN CITY — After a press conference unveiling the newly restored Mausoleum of the Valerii family in the Vatican necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica, journalists were taken on a private tour of the underground burial chambers.
A handful of American journalists was accompanied by our intrepid guide, U.S. Father Jay Mello. He was ordained to the priesthood last year, is finishing his fifth year at Rome’s North American College, and will be returning to his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts this June.
Father Jay led us down the necropolis’ narrow corridors and ancient lanes, pointing out the immense marble sarcophagi and stone tablets that marked many of the graves.
He told us all sorts of interesting facts, theories and discoveries made over the decades in this dark, dank burial ground.
Turns out this forgotten pagan necropolis was discovered when there was no room left for popes to be buried in the grottos directly under the basilica. Workers started digging underneath the grottos in 1939 to carve out a spot Pope Pius XI had indicated and “here they discovered the basilica was built over a necropolis,” Father Jay said.
Restorers cleaned out and repaired the chambers which had been buried in dirt while scholars searched the tombs for clues — especially for hard evidence to back up tradition that says the basilica was built on top of the burial spot of St. Peter.
The Valerii mausoleum had a charcoal drawing that was visible in the 1950s but is now nothing more than a few ghostly squiggles. The drawings and words saying “Peter pray to Christ Jesus for the holy ones by your tomb” were determined by one scholar to be concrete proof that Peter was buried in the vicinity of this chamber.
Father Jay then brought us to the spot considered to be the exact place where St. Peter was buried after he was crucified nearby. Inside a small hole chipped away in a wall covered with ancient graffiti, you can see a plexiglass box filled with what are revered as the bones of St. Peter.
There are 12 boxes in there, Father Jay said, and one box containing the saint’s relics is also tucked away inside the pope’s private chapel!
He said after Pope John Paul II had been shot in St. Peter’s Square in May 1981, he was still recuperating and unable to come down to St. Peter’s tomb to pray on the saint’s June 29 feast day.
So somebody went down to the tomb, Father Jay said, and brought one box of the relics up to the pope’s private chapel in the papal apartments and as far as anyone knows the box is still there today.