September 10, 2009
Between May 2 and Nov. 17, 2006, scientists carried out excavations at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls in Rome. Ever since the time of Constantine, a basilica has stood at this site over the tomb of St. Paul. From the very beginning, pilgrims visited the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles, not only to remember his great work of evangelizing the world, but also to venerate and honor the saint and to ask for his intercession.
The recent excavations uncovered a marble sarcophagus, 8 ft. by 4 ft., which rested on a layer of clay floor from the time of Constantine. Using a microsurgical probe, technicians entered the sarcophagus through a tiny hole drilled into the top of the marble. They took pictures and removed microscopic fragments of human bone.
Three important facts emerged from these recent excavations. First, the tomb contained traces of a precious linen cloth, purple in color and laminated with pure gold. This indicates the burial of someone highly esteemed and venerated. Second, the fragments of bones belonged to someone who lived in the first century. Third, the Basilica in honor of St. Paul was deliberately built over this tomb to which pilgrims have been coming from the beginning of the Christian era. This was no ordinary grave.
As he brought to end the Year of St. Paul on June 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI presided at First Vespers for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls. The Holy Father commented on the results of these recent excavations. He said that “an authentic scientific analysis seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that these are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul.”
Pope Paul VI had made a similar statement about bones discovered under the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. For almost fifty years, scientists, historians and linguists had been examining the archaeological investigations under St. Peter’s Basilica. The present basilica dating from the time of Bernini and Michelangelo is built over an earlier church from the time of Constantine. The emperor had wished to commemorate the burial site of St. Peter which was already being visited by pilgrims.
Both Peter and Paul were great apostles and martyrs. In the first century, Christians gave special respect to the tombs of martyrs. They adorned their graves with decorations to distinguish them from those of the other dead. On the anniversaries of their death, they would double the customary use of lamps near the tombs. They would also write inscriptions asking for the intercession of the martyr near the place of burial. Over the tombs of the more famous martyrs such as St. Peter and St. Paul, they built basilicas to mark the place of burial and to serve as a place of prayer. (cf. Paolinus Nolanus,
Carmen 26 vv. 387-388; Prudentius,
Peristephan. Hymn XI, vv. 195-210). In this way, both the resting place of the saints and their mortal remains were honored and treasured.
The tradition of respecting the remains of the saints is clearly witnessed at the very death of St. Polycarp (69 A.D.-155 A.D.). St. Polycarp was one of the immediate disciples of the Apostles. He sat at the feet of St. John the Evangelist and heard from this close friend of Jesus the stories about the Lord. As bishop of Smyrna, present-day Izmir in Turkey, he wrote many letters to the faithful, teaching them sound doctrine in the face of heresy and forming them in the life of holiness. The faithful greatly respected him both in life and death.
When St. Polycarp was burnt alive at the stake for refusing to renounce Christ, the Christians gathered up his bones for burial. In a letter from the Church of Smyrna to the Church of Philomelium, the Smyrnaeans wrote, “We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
From the first century until the 16
th century, Christians continued this attitude of respecting the remains of the saints. Their places of burial and their relics enjoyed something of a quasi-sacramental character. In other words, they somehow made visible the working of God’s grace. However, with Protestant Reformation in the 16
th century, those who left the Church discarded the veneration of relics. They wanted to rid the Church of every false practice that had obscured the gospel.
Were the Reformers right? Were they accomplishing an authentic return to the origins of faith when they rejected the place of relics in Christian devotion? Do the Scriptures in any way provide a biblical basis for such a pious custom practiced today in East and West?
To be continued.