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Tomb of St. Peter

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The history of the relics of the Apostles Peter and Paul is one which is involved in considerable difficulty and confusion. The primary authorities to be consulted are in opposition to one another, or at least appear to be so. There is no doubt where the bodies now are — in the tombs of the Vatican and the Ostian Way respectively — but there is another tomb at the Catacombs of S. Sebastiano which also claims the honour of having at one time received them, and the question is as to the period at which this episode occurred, and whether there was only one or a double translation of the relics. Whatever conclusion we come to, we shall have to discard, or at least to explain away, some of the evidence which exists. The account which we give here is the simplest theory consistent with the evidence, and is based upon one consistent principle throughout; namely, to assume only one translation of the relics — the one which took place at a known historical date, and for historical reasons which we can understand — and to refer to this all the allusions to a translation which occur in early authorities, even though some of them seem to have been misplaced in date. There would have been no difficulty in obtaining the bodies of the Apostles after their martyrdom, and the bereaved Christians seem to have followed their usual custom in burying both as near as possible to the scene of their sufferings. Each was laid in ground that belonged to Christian proprietors, by the side of well-known roads leading out of the city; St. Paul on the Via Ostiana and St. Peter on the Via Cornelia. In each case 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 centre of this vault.

We have definite evidence of the existence of these tombs (trophoea) in these places as early as the beginning of the second century, in the words of the priest Caius (Eusebius, Church History II.28). 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 the year 258, however, this protection was withdrawn. Christians from henceforth were specially excepted from the privilege which they had previously enjoyed on account of the use they had made of it to enable them to carry on religious worship. Hence it became necessary to remove the sacred relics of the two great Apostles in order to preserve them from possible outrage. They were removed secretly by night and hidden in the Catacombs of S. Sebastiano, though, probably the fact of their removal was known to very few, and the great body of Roman Christians believed them still to rest in their original tombs. 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, Christians were able at last to provide themselves with edifices suitable for the celebration of Divine Service, and the places so long hallowed as 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 himself not only supplied the funds for these buildings, in his desire to honour the memories of the two Apostles, but actually assisted in the work of building with his own hands. At St. Paul's, where the tomb had remained in its original condition of a simple vault, no difficulty presented itself, and the high altar was erected over the vault. The inscription, dating from this period, "Paulo Apostolo Martyri", may still be seen in its place under the altar. At St. Peter's, however, the matter was complicated by the fact that Pope St. 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 extreme reverence in which the place has always been held has resulted in these arrangements remaining almost unchanged even to the present time, in spite of the rebuilding of the church. Only, the actual vault itself in which the body lies is no longer accessible and has not been so since the ninth century. There are those, however, who think that it would not be impossible to find the entrance and to reopen it once more. A unanimous request that this should be done was made to Leo XIII by the International Archaeological Congress in 1900, but, so far, without result.

About this page

APA citation. Barnes, A. (1912). Tomb of St. Peter. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Barnes, Arthur. "Tomb of St. Peter." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Judy Levandoski.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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