The Scavi Tour takes you into excavations beneath the lower level (the crypt area) of the present day Saint Peter's Basilica. That area in Roman times was a cemetery (above ground mausoleums and graves) on the Vatican hillside next to the Vatican Circus of Nero (think of the stadium in Ben Hur). This was located across the Tiber River in the suburbs of the old city. This Circus was also the place where during Nero's reign many Christians died, including by tradition Peter, crucified upside down at his request. He was buried in a portion of that cemetery, and his grave marked by his followers, with an eventual monument of sorts developing on that spot.
Jump to the early 300's when the Emperor Constantine converted. His desire was to build a suitable church over the burial place of Peter. To do so, he emptied the cemetery of remains, built retaining walls on the one side (the cemetery was on a hill), and leveled the one side, filling in the lower portion so as to have a level playing field upon which to build the first Saint Peter's - which stood over 1100 years. The monument at Peter's tomb had a chapel built over it, and the old high altar was above that.
Jump to the new Saint Peter's built in the 1500's over the same site. The crypt of this tremendous church is at the level of Constantine's church, but the new structure was built upon that foundation. In laying the supports they honored the tomb/monument/chapel and old high altar, placing the present high altar immediately above. The Roman cemetery was forgotten, Peter's tomb untouched.
Jump ahead to 1939 when workers were preparing a grave for Pope Pius XI in the crypt. A worker fell through part of a wall that revealed openings below, and parts of the old Roman cemetery. Pope Pius XII authorized an excavation of these sites that revealed narrow pathways, brick mausoleums, some still covered with murals and mosaics, and eventually the original monument that stated on its wall "Peter is here!" It fit earlier descriptions and low and behold is directly under the present altar and "confessio". Bones were found in a box of a Semitic man in his later years with ankles broken and bones dating back through carbon testing to 2000 years ago. Pope Paul VI in 1968 declared that as is humanly possible, we believe these to be the bones of Peter. On the tour you can see these bones placed in a clear container. It is a powerful experience of Faith and of history. Pope Francis, Peter's 265th successor, yesterday prayed before the remains of his predecessor.
Speaking of successors of Saint Peter,
today is the anniversary of the death
of Blessed Pope John Paul II
He was the 263rd successor of Peter.
Pray for him, and Benedict, and Francis.