Treasures of the Church-
A Key Find Lays Doubts to Rest
By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, DEC. 14, 2006 (Zenit.org).-
2006 has been a year of discoveries for Rome. New frescos, new
archaeological finds and statues returned after years of foreign
residence have made this year a hit parade of novelties.
But this week the Holy See topped the charts as it announced the
unearthing of the tomb (a sarcophagus) of St. Paul. Vatican
archaeologist Giorgio Filippi actually found the tomb three years
ago, but further research established that "there is no doubt, the
sarcophagus found under the pavement of the Basilica of St. Paul's
is really that of the Apostle," as Filippi announced in a press
Unlike St. Peter, whose traditional presence in Rome was supported
by a paucity of factual evidence until the excavations under St.
Peter's Basilica from 1939 to 1950, St. Paul's sojourn in Rome is
well documented in the Acts of the Apostles. St. Paul was probably
sent to Rome as a prisoner somewhere around A.D. 58 to 60 and spent
several years among the early Christian community of Rome.
Eusebius of Caesarea tells us, "Paul was beheaded by him [Nero],"
while tradition elaborates that the saint was martyred outside the
city at a site now known as Tre Fontane, or the Three Fountains.
This picturesque name is derived from the legend that when Paul was
beheaded, his head bounced three times on the ground -- miraculously
creating three fountains. A church has graced the spot since the
fifth century and today it is a monastery.
St. Paul's body was taken a little closer to the city, along the Via
Ostiense, or the main road toward the sea, and buried alongside this
major thoroughfare. Eusebius also cites the third-century
ecclesiastic Gaius who claimed that he "can show you the trophies of
the Apostles. If you will go to the Vatican or along the Via
Ostiensis you will find the trophies of the founders of this
These "trophies" were simple, makeshift affairs meant to remain
hidden from the eyes of Imperial persecutors. Only under Constantine
were the apostles given due architectural homage. Great basilicas
were erected over the simple tombs and the early graves were
enclosed in the foundations of these churches.
The sarcophagus found by Giorgio Filippi was made slightly later,
during the reign of Emperor Theodosius, the man who outlawed all
other religious cults in 395, leaving Christianity the sole religion
of the empire. The large marble sarcophagus was covered by a plaque
bearing the inscription "Apostle Paul Martyr."
Thanks to the work of Filippi; the archpriest of the basilica,
Cardinal Andrea Cordero del Montezemolo; and the engineers of the
church, the sarcophagus, hidden behind the plaque under several feet
of cement, was brought to light and can now be seen by pilgrims to
This discovery restores to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the
Walls its central purpose as the place where the faithful go to pray
at the resting place of the great apostle. For centuries people came
to the tomb, especially during the first Jubilee year when Pope
Boniface VIII declared the conditions for the plenary indulgence
were to pray at the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Dante, Michelangelo, St. Philip Neri and millions of others never
questioned the authenticity of the location until a fire in 1823
devastated the basilica. The dramatic rebuilding and the subsequent
enclosing of the sarcophagus in a block of cement made the
historical reality of Paul's martyrdom at Tre Fontane and his burial
along the Via Ostiense seem dim and doubtful.
The impetus for the excavation came during the Jubilee Year 2000.
When millions of pilgrims came to the tomb of St. Peter, and
thousands visited the excavation of St. Peter's grave and saw the
proof of his presence, they then went to St. Paul's and wondered why
no one had searched for the tomb of St. Paul.
The excavations began in 2002 and today the sarcophagus has been
found and is on view for the faithful through a glass window laid
into the floor. The remaining question is whether, as with the tomb
of St. Peter, the remains of the Apostle Paul are still present.
Catholics the world over had to wait 35 years from Pope Pius XII's
announcement of the discovery of Peter's grave to the declaration
that the bones had also been recovered.
Pope Paul VI announced the discovery of St. Peter's remains in 1976,
inviting us to "rekindle in our minds the veneration, love, fidelity
toward these apostles who constituted the beginnings of the Roman
church and left to her the heritage of their word, of their
authority and of their blood." Words that remain equally pertinent
to this newest discovery.
From this moment forward, pilgrims will be able to see the graves of
St. Peter and St. Paul, which Paul VI described as the "human and
material as they are of the memory of the apostles." No doubt this
is great boon for our scientific world of facts and proofs, but
while we rejoice in being able to see and believe, Jesus praises
those "who have not seen and believe."
This page is the work of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and