It was 1939 and the world was going to war. However, at the Vatican, a bevy of men were working feverishly underneath St. Peter’s Basilica to fulfill Pope Pius XI’s request to be buried in that mostly forgotten and unused space. Because the space was only six feet high and Pius’ successor, Pope Pius XII, wanted to add a small chapel to the gravesite, workers were forced to dig deep.
Suddenly, the ground gave way and one of the workers fell 30 feet – and into a wonderland!
“Very quickly he found himself in an amazing and until-then unknown world, with bright mural paintings of flowers (particularly roses), birds, vases full of vividly colored fruit, idyllic landscapes, cupids, and pretty winged beings. … Digging further, the workmen discover the remains of the daughter of a Roman consul, wrapped in purple garb with a golden brooch. Then they encountered the most amazing find of all: the much simpler grave of a woman from the mid-second century, with Christian inscriptions on her tomb.”
This astounding discovery was the impetus behind Pope Pius XII’s decision to begin a search for the bones of St. Peter. He was well aware that three previous Popes tried and failed to do this, so he resolved to keep the project secret lest a failure shake the faith of a people burdened by war. To keep the secret, he decided to hire only priests and Vatican workers to do the excavation. This would prove to be a serious mistake.
The incredible story of how St. Peter’s bones were found and authenticated (as well as the quote above) can be found in an exciting new book, “The Fisherman’s Tomb: The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search” by New York Times Best-Selling Author John O’Neill, http://bit.ly/FishermansTomb. Before O’Neill’s guest appearance on “EWTN Live,” http://bit.ly/EWTNLiveFishermansTomb, the lawyer turned author stopped by “Inside EWTN” for an interview about his fascinating and easily digestible book, which reads like a true-life detective novel. What follows are just a few of the highlights.
Pope Pius XII knew that before the search could begin, he needed money – and lots of it. Enter Texas wildcatter George Strake, who O’Neill says owned the third largest oil field ever discovered. “He believed God had given it to him to give back to projects for the Catholic Church.”
As O’Neill tells it, Pope Pius XII sent a priest to meet with Strake saying: “’The Pope would like to know if you’d be willing to finance the most secret, the most important project, of the Catholic Church. It could fail. If you do it, no one will ever know.’” Despite the conditions, or maybe because of them, the humble oilman agreed.
It’s hard for present day Catholics to imagine how the burial place of the first Pope could be lost to time, but a little understanding of the period in which St. Peter lived makes clear why and how this happened.
The Roman Emperor Nero executed Saints Peter and Paul between A.D. 64 and A.D. 66. Nero’s cruelty was legendary even in his own time. O’Neill says Nero killed his mother, his first wife, his brother, and his pregnant second wife (whom he kicked to death), and he was “involved” in the poisoning of his adopted father, who he killed in order to become emperor.
Most Catholics have heard about or seen images of Christians being used as human torches to light Nero’s palace gardens. Nero supposedly inflicted this cruelty on them in retribution for the Great Fire of Rome. However, O’Neill says it was most likely Nero himself who had the fire set. This would allow the egomaniac to use the land, now conveniently cleared of homes, to build a mega-palace for himself.
After Peter’s death by crucifixion, the Romans discarded his body on nearby Vatican Hill, with the rest of the city’s trash. However, because of the persecution at the time, Peter’s “grave” had to be secretly marked by Christians, who had developed inscriptions that could be read by the faithful but not by the pagans. Around A.D. 150, a structure was built near Peter’s grave on Vatican Hill to further mark the spot, and sometime between A.D. 250 and A.D. 300, Peter’s bones were secretly entombed in the nearby Graffiti Wall.
The bigger problem occurred during the construction of the first St. Peter’s Basilica. Vatican Hill was now overflowing with the tombs of wealthy Roman families. To level the hill for construction of the Basilica, these tombs had to be covered with tons of fill — and so the secrets of those graves would lay hidden for more than a thousand years.
Pius XII’s search for St. Peter’s remains began in the Vatican library, which boasts more than 75,000 ancient documents that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Three separate documents seemed to support the burial of Peter under St. Peter’s.
The priests and Vatican workers appointed to do the excavation were well meaning, but inexperienced at best. As O’Neill tells it, the person who assumed “practical control” of the project was Father Antonio Ferrua. He had obtained a doctorate in archeology two years before the project commenced, but obviously had little to no real world experience.
“In 1951, the Pope became very uncomfortable with the nature of the excavation,” O’Neill said. “At the suggestion of [a close advisor], he brought in the greatest archeologist in the world – a woman and an agnostic: Margherita Guarducci. She was supposed to be there a week. She said to the Pope: ‘They’ve done a terrible job! Inscriptions have great meaning. No one has done anything to preserve the murals. The bones should be forensically examined.’ The Pope fired [Ferrua and his workers] and put Guarducci in charge. Her one-week [consultation] turned into a 25-year assignment.”
The book details how Guarducci went about figuring out the puzzle of where St. Peter’s tomb actually lay – and how she discovered the saint’s bones amidst myriad other bones, including those of a mouse. In 1964, the former agnostic, who converted to Catholicism during her search for the truth, wrote a report for the Vatican, which published in early 1965.
She asserted that the bones of the fisherman had indeed been found. This ignited a firestorm, with Father Ferrua, who had been appointed head of the Vatican’s Commission on Archeology in the 70s, leading the charge in denying the authenticity of the find. Guarducci spent three years adding even more evidence to her claim and answering her critics.
Unfortunately, after the death of Pope Paul VI (who had taken over the project from his predecessor), there remained only two people alive who had anything to do with the excavation: Guarducci and Ferrua. Three days after the Pope’s death, Ferrua fired Guarducci, who was then 76 years old.
“He ordered the bones to be put in storage, eradicating any mention of her or [St. Peter’s] bones,” O’Neill said. “But if he thought that was the end, he made the mistake of a lifetime. Guarducci went back to teaching at the University of Rome and became even more famous. She solved even more mysteries, including the one about the black Madonna.”
In 1992, the 88-year-old Guarducci was interviewed at the University of Milan by Federico Zeri, who O’Neill describes as “a major television figure, a Sotheby expert on antiquities, and another great detective in outing fakes.” Ferrua had accused Guarducci for years of allowing her faith to control what she did. However, O’Neill said the former agnostic told the crowd that she had been devoted to science her whole life and that her faith came from her scientific discoveries.
O’Neill summarizes Zeri’s eloquent statement at the conclusion of their interview, paraphrasing it like this: “I’m not a Christian Margherita, but I’ve tracked your work. There is no question you’ve found Peter!”
It’s not hard to imagine this as a movie.
For readers, the question remains: How did O’Neill get the inside scoop for this book? He says he came to Houston after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Texas School of Law, and after completing a clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court. With that pedigree, he had a wonderful legal practice centering on the oil industry with a large law firm.
Thanks to that work, he met and befriended Strake’s son and grandson, which is how he first heard about the secret project. Later, he became close friends with the elder Strake. As he says in the Forward to his book, “Sometimes a story finds an author rather than the reverse.”
It’s a good thing. As O’Neill noted: “If Strake had died without this coming out, all would have been lost. He started high schools, colleges, and scout camps, and would never allow his name to be used, but he was willing to tell the story now. After his death, his kids [let people know] his name. There’s not even a Wikipedia entry for George Strake. His son is on it, but not senior!”
Thanks to O’Neill’s book, the humble wildcat oilman will now go down in history posthumously as the person who funded one of the Vatican’s most important projects, a former agnostic as the woman who made one of the Church’s most astounding discoveries – and lawyer John O’Neill as the man who had the privilege of telling the world about it.