Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The Associated Press
(Continued from page 1)
In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, flanked by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, left, and Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, kneels in front of what is believed to be the burial site of St. Peter.
In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, center, visits the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
St. Peter's mission was to continue to preach the message of Jesus and reach more souls. Francis, as a Jesuit, is steeped in the evangelizing mission of the church, and the necropolis tour brings him back to the origins of the church in its simplest years as a community of Christians professing their faith in defiance of the crackdown by Roman emperors.
Peter himself was among the Christian martyrs during Nero's reign. He is believed to have been crucified, head down, on the Vatican hill.
Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had an early basilica built on the slopes of the Vatican Hill, burying the pagan and Christian cemetery — necropolis means 'city of the dead' — that surrounded Peter's burial site.
The current basilica, named after St. Peter, was constructed over the earlier basilica that was deemed unsafe and demolished in the late 15th century.
The Baroque master architect Bernini designed the bronze canopy over the central altar over the spot of Peter's burial site. The current basilica was planned as an awe-inspiring monument that would project the image of a powerful church.
Under popes of the last century, extensive excavations were carried out of the sprawling necropolis. In 1965, archaeologists said they had found the bones of Peter in an area near an ancient Greek inscription saying "Peter is here."
Part of a nearby necropolis came to light in 2003 during construction of a parking lot.
A few years ago, the Vatican unveiled the largest and most luxurious of the pagan tombs under St. Peter's Basilica — that of a family of former slaves.
Guided tours of the necropolis, upon appointment, have been one of the most sought-after attractions for tourists to the Vatican.