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12 September 2005

Travelogue Monday! Rome... Part II

My Short-Lived Excursion Into The Tombs of the Popes


r "Excuse me sir, take another step and I'll throw this spear at you." Ah yes, this was the Vatican, home of spiritualism, prayer, adoration, and ugly Swiss Guards with long spears.

First, a little bit of history

The history of the relics of the Apostles Peter and Paul is one which is involved in considerable confusion. 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 Saint Sebastian which also claims the honor of having at one time received them. One of the assumptions on what really happened is as follows (but is viable for dispute as with all other cool theories :P ) - There would have been no difficulty in obtaining the bodies of the Apostles after their martyrdom. 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. 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In the year 258, however, this protection was withdrawn.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 exempted 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 Saint Sebastian, 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 the Great, Christians worked towards preparing the places so long hallowed as the resting places of the relics of the Apostles into the sites of great basilicas. The emperor himself not only supplied the funds for these buildings, 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 Anacletus, in the first century, had built an upper chamber above the vault. Even to the present time, in spite of the rebuilding of the church, 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, but, so far, without result.

My Adventure Begins

Now, I ask you... after reading all of that, wouldn't YOU want to go down those stairs and see the reilics? I thought so... me too. I stood at the top of the stairs and read the sign: "Nessun Entrata Ha Permesso" Now how was I supposed to know that the sign read "No Entrance Permitted"? They should have had it in English like they do today.

Anyway I looked around and only saw one Swiss Guard and his back was turned towards me. Why would the Vatican think a sign would deter me? Especially since the only guard was turned away from me?

Down the stairs, I descended very quietly, tip-toeing, so my feet wouldn't make a sound in the immense echo-chamber. I was simply in awe. Marble stairs, marble walls, marble ceilings... slivers of gold and silver appropriately decorating the walls, floors, ceiling, nooks and crannies... all over the place.

Good Lord these guys are buried in style and all I'm getting is dirt. Once at the bottom and my feet planted on marble floors again... I looked to the left down a long marble and gold hallway with what appeared to be grottos on each side... I looked to the right, another long hallway with grottos off to each side... and the in front of me... the hallway was darkened and an iron gate protecting it from the prohibited masses, like me I suppose... it also had a lock on it.

I hesitated a second too long.

I was just about to go straight ahead into the darkened hallway towards the gold locked gate when I heard behind me somewhere: "Fermata! Il signore, la fermata! Nessun'entrata!"

Are you guessing what I am guessing? Yes out of nowhere came the Invisible Flying Swiss Guard... holding his massive spear with a REALLY big pointed tip... I had to decide immediately... should I run down the hall, snapping pictures as I run and take the chance of being speared right there in front of dead popes? The fact that the guard positioned himself in back of me now, close enough to feel the slight pressure guiding me back up the stairs...

I made my decision and began the long walk back up the marbeled stairs... no pictures, no fond memories... nothing. Somehow going back up, I lost that warm, fuzzy and HOLY feeling that I had when I was heading down the same steps. So ended my brief excursion into the tombs of the Popes.

"il dolore me e", yes, "woe is me" indeed.

Several years afterwhich I learned that the tombs were opened to the public. and stayed opened for a brief time. Then Vatican officials announced that the tomb of St Peter would be closed to visitors for the foreseeable future because of damage caused by humidity. Visitors had been able to peer through a gilded grille to the mosaic and bronze floor that lies over the tomb, with groups of 15 at a time entering the necropolis beneath. But Vatican officials say that not even selected visitors such as scholars will be allowed into the tombs in future because of the danger of damage through humidity, damp, saline encrustations and microbiological phenomena.

Observations and Questions
First, I need to apologise... I lied... I knew what the sign had said... but that is no excuse. Apparently after some years of work, it is now re-opened again... I need to go back and attend to some unfinished business.

Birth Announcements and Death Notices

Born today in 1913, Jesse Owens, Olympic track star, spoiled Hitler's 1936 Olympics with 4 gold. And in the death notices, one of my favorite growing up cowboys, 1972 William Boyd, cowboy, (Hopalong Cassidy), dies at 77.

Gentle Reminder of the Day

C'mon now, get yours in before I run out of room!

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