At the beginning of his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis laments the ‘end of historical consciousness’: that is, instead of seeing human life as defined by the history that precedes us, we feel that the only way to be free is by creating everything from scratch (§13). Historical consciousness plays an important role in the Catholic imagination since almost every facet of the life of faith – liturgy, Scriptures, tradition – is marked by the feeling of history and antiquity.

Pope Francis gave special witness to this historical consciousness when, on 24 November 2013, he displayed for public viewing and veneration for the first time what are believed to be the bones of Peter the Apostle. Even though a famous dispute exists concerning these specific bones, this should not detract from the fascinating discovery that was made in 1939 when workers excavating St Peter’s Basilica in order to make room for the tomb of Pope Pius XI, had the floor breakthrough into an ancient Roman necropolis.

The Tomb of Peter

The existence of Peter’s bones and tomb in Rome had been highly contested for a long time before. In fact, one of the arguments put forward by some Protestant apologists is that Peter was never in Rome, and thus he could not have been its first bishop. Pope Pius XII, sensing the opportunity and danger, ordered a secret excavation that lasted for ten years with the help of financial contributions from a devoutly Catholic Texan oilman. This excavation finally became public in 1949 when Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, one of the world’s most reputable epigraphers, was put in charge of the project by Pius XII himself. Under her direction, they were able to discover an epigraph that read: Petros eni (“Peter is within”).

Peter had been in Rome after all.

Of course, this was something that we can find suggested within early Christian texts anyway. In his first epistle, Peter sends greetings from ‘your sister in Babylon’ (5:13), referring to the church in Babylon – an empire that had not properly existed since 539 BC but had become a code-word for someplace else: Rome. Likewise, St Irenaeus of Lyon, writing in the second half of the second century, seemed aware that the church in Rome was something Paul and Peter had founded together. In his treatise Against Heresies he writes about

the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul … (3.3.2)

To find the tomb of Peter actually buried beneath St Peter’s Basilica, the alleged site of his death, is something that inspires a deeper historical consciousness; a reverence for the faith that is not simply recreated with each new generation but has been handed down through time and can find its foundation with the apostles.

025 Saints Peter and Paul Icon from Saint Paraskevi Church in Langadas

The Tomb of Paul

Although there has been much work done to it over the years, the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine and has retained much of its original character for nearly 1435 years. After the Edict of Milan (more popularly referred to as the Edict of Tolerance in which Christianity found itself free from state persecution), Constantine ordered the excavation of the place where Christians had secretly been venerating the site of Paul’s death, a place called the cella memoriae. It is about two kilometres outside of the Aurelian Walls of Rome, along the Ostiense Way. It was there that Constantine had the basilica built. In 324 AD it was consecrated by Pope Sylvester.

On 15 July 1823, after a long history of development, a tragic fire destroyed much of the basilica. Pope Leo XII published an encyclical, Ad Plurimas, in which he called for donations to have it rebuilt.

The discovery of St Paul’s tomb was less dramatic than St Peter’s. In 2002, excavation work began that lasted until 2006. It was then that Pope Benedict XVI could announce that they had discovered a white marble sarcophagus beneath the altar bearing the Latin inscription, Paulo Apostolo Mart (“Paul, Apostle and Martyr”). In 2009, radiocarbon dating confirmed that the bones located within dated back to the first or second century, suggesting that they were indeed those of Paul himself.

Christian theology needs history

In his book, History and Eschatology, biblical scholar N.T. Wright says that even though we might be tempted to think of history as unnecessary for faith and theology, ‘a specifically Christian theology has no choice. Christian theology needs history’ (SPCK, 2019). Christianity is a stubbornly historical faith. One of the reasons why the Creed mentions Pontius Pilate is because Christian faith is not formed by abstract principles but by a historical event: real and living people, people who claimed to have eaten and drank with the resurrected Jesus – who had been put to death by the real, historical figure of Pontius Pilate – and people who went to extraordinary efforts to preach this Good News to whomever they could.

Reviving the ‘historical consciousness’ of faith is important when so often we are trying to break ties with the past. What the discovery of the tombs of Peter and Paul reveals to us, perhaps, is that history actually has extraordinary power to orient and anchor us in a turbulent world.