From left, Father Gary Secor, vicar general, and Bishop Larry Silva, both of the Diocese of Hawaii, and Father George Mockel, vicar general of the Oakland diocese, send a Hawaiian-style greeting from Rome. They were attending the 20th annual Rector’s Dinner at the Janiculum Campus of the Pontifical North American College. Church leaders from the Western U.S. are in Rome to report on their dioceses.
Down to the tombs
Father George Mockel
During my visit to Rome one of our seminarians arranged a tour of the excavations beneath St. Peter’s. It is an archeologist's paradise. In as much as only about 120 people a day can get through these tiny and rather tight quarters, I felt privileged to be among them.
As we entered beneath the arch leading to the scavi (“the dig”)we started down a staircase that led to another world: the Roman Necropolis, the City of the Dead. The passages are narrow and humid. They once were streets and alleys surrounded by the graves of both pagans and Christians.
We are actually on the hill that is called Vaticano. In the First Century it was an unattractive semi-marshland used for burial plots. Nero's Circus, with an Egyptian granite obelisk in the middle, was a stone’s throw away. Looking for a scapegoat because of a great fire that destroyed huge parts of Rome, the Christians were an easy target. It seems that Peter was among them and after his death his body was buried in this marsh area.
As the tour continued we passed by and actually walked into some of the tombs of many first and second century Christians.
We finally arrived at the tomb of St. Peter. We learned that all of this was originally discovered by accident.
In digging the tomb for Pope Pius XI the workers slowly uncovered what was an ancient burial ground. As they slowly dug toward the area beneath the high altar they discovered evidence of a place that was obviously a destination for early second century pilgrims. Location, surrounding decoration, carbon14 dating and even graffiti convinced them that they had indeed found the tomb of St. Peter.
Here one is in touch with the apostolic foundation of the church. As George Weigel says: Visiting this place one comes into contact with the fact that real things happened to real people who made real life and death decisions and staked their lives — not on stories or fables — but on what and who they had come to know as the “way, the truth and the life.”
It was a tangible reminder to me that this “way, truth and life” is not cost-free.