Vatican Catacombs

The Vatican Grotto

There are over 100 tombs located within St. Peter's Basilica, many located in the Vatican grotto, beneath the Basilica. These include 91 popes, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Exiled Catholic British royalty James Francis Edward Stuart and his two sons, Charles Edward Stuart and Henry Benedict Stuart, are buried here, due to being granted asylum by Pope Clement XI. The most prominent woman entombed is Christina of Sweden, who abdicated her throne in order to convert to Catholicism. The most recent interment was Pope John Paul II, on April 8, 2005. Beneath, near the crypt, is the recently-discovered vaulted fourth-century "Tomb of the Julii".

Vatican Grotto

On December 23, 1950, in his pre-Christmas radio broadcast to the world, Pope Pius XII announced the discovery of Saint Peter's tomb.[1] This was the culmination of 10 years of archaeological research under the crypt of the basilica.

Between 1939 and 1949 the archaeological team had uncovered a complex of mausoleums under the foundations of St. Peter's Basilica, dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries.[2] Most impressive was the small monument under the present altar of the church which they believed was built as early as AD 160 to mark the tomb of St. Peter below it.

In 1942, the Administrator of St. Peter's, Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, found remains in a second tomb in the monument. Being concerned that these presumed relics of a saint would not be accorded the respect they deserved, and having little understanding of correct archeological procedures, he secretly ordered these remains stored elsewhere for safe-keeping.

After Kaas' death, researcher Margherita Guarducci discovered these relics by chance. She informed Pope Paul VI of her belief that these remains were the those of St. Peter. Bone testing revealed that the remains belonged to a man in his sixties. On June 26th 1968 Paul VI announced that the relics of St. Peter had been discovered.

There will probably always be controversy over the identity of the remains in the tomb. To ensure that the tomb was properly identified, it is necessary to trace the movement of the relics over the millennia. Often the histories refer to the saints in the plural, meaning both Apostles, Peter and Paul.

There might have been little difficulty in obtaining the body of the Apostle after his martyrdom. It is believed that the bereaved Christians seem to have followed their usual custom in burying him as near as possible to the scene of his suffering. He was laid in ground that belonged to Christian proprietors, by the side of a well-known road leading out of the city, the Via Cornelia (site of a known pagan and Christian cemetery) on the hill called Vaticanus.[3] The actual tomb seems to have been an underground vault, approached from the road by a descending staircase, and the body reposed in a sarcophagus of stone in the center of this vault. Legend says that the tomb of St. Peter was at first marked simply by a red rock, for safety's sake as those wishing to pay respects or make pilgrimage to the site might recognize the meaning of the red rock while it would have no meaning to nonbelievers.

There is evidence of the existence of the tomb (trophoea, ie trophies, as signs or memorials of victory) here at the beginning of the second century, in the words of the priest Caius.[4]

These tombs were the objects of pilgrimage during the ages of persecution, and it will be found recorded in the Acts of several of the martyrs that they were seized while praying at the tombs of the Apostles.

For two centuries the relics were safe enough in these tombs, public though they were, for the respect entertained by the Romans for any place where the dead were buried preserved them from any danger of sacrilege.

In 258, a Christian persecution may have forced the removal of these relics to the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian where they could be venerated without reprisal from the authorities or a desecration of the relics. They were removed secretly by night and hidden. The fact of their removal may have been known to very few, and the great body of Roman Christians believed them still to rest in their original tombs. Another source gives this date as "384.

At a later date, when the persecution was less acute, they were brought back again to the Vatican and the Via Ostiana respectively.

When the Church was once more at peace under Constantine the Great, Christians were able at last to build edifices suitable for the celebration of Divine Service. The resting places of the relics of the Apostles were naturally among the first to be selected as the sites of great basilicas. The emperor supplied the funds for these buildings, in his desire to honor the memories of the two Apostles.

At St. Peter's, the matter was complicated by the fact that Pope Anacletus, in the first century, had built an upper chamber or memoria above the vault. This upper chamber had become endeared to the Romans during the ages of persecution, and they were unwilling that it should be destroyed. In order to preserve it a singular and unique feature was given to the basilica in the raised platform of the apse and the Chapel of the Confession underneath. The reverence in which the place has always been held has resulted in these arrangements remaining almost unchanged to the present time, in spite of the rebuilding of the church. The actual vault in which the body lies has not been accessible since the ninth century.