VATICAN CITY, JUNE 28, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The tomb of St. Paul may indeed contain the remains of the Apostle of the Gentiles, Benedict XVI affirmed in his homily at the closing of the Year of St. Paul.
The Pope presided at first vespers this evening for the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, which marked the conclusion of the Pauline Year. The celebration took place at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where it has traditionally been believed St. Paul was buried.
“An authentic scientific analysis” conducted on the sarcophagus conserved in the basilica, the Holy Father said, “seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that these are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul.”
“A tiny hole was drilled into the sarcophagus — which over many centuries had never been opened — in order to insert a special probe, which revealed traces of costly purple colored linen fabric, laminated with pure gold and a blue fabric with linen filaments,” Benedict XVI explained.
“Grains of red incense and protein and chalk substances were also discovered,” he continued. “There were also tiny bone fragments, which were sent for carbon-14 testing by experts who were unaware of their origin. These were discovered to belong to a person who had lived between the first and second centuries.”
St. Paul is said to have been beheaded at Aquas Salvias — where the Church of Tre Fontane was then erected — while he was buried at the place where the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls now stands, and where two basilicas — one ordered by Emperor Constantine and the other the so-called basilica of the “Three Emperors” (Theodosius, Valentinian II and Arcadius) — were constructed during the fourth century.
Despite the fact that the original tomb of St. Paul had been the object of profound devotion on the part of pilgrims from the beginning, over the centuries it disappeared from view and eventually could no longer be identified.
During the reconstruction of the basilica, which had been destroyed by a fire in 1823, two marble plaques dating from the time of Pope Leo the Great (440-461), which contained the barely visible inscription “Paolo Apostolo Mart” (“Paul the Apostle Martyr”), were discovered beneath the “confessio” altar.
The first archaeological inspections, which took place in 2002-2003 in the area of the “confessio,” permitted the identification of the remains of the Constantinian and Theodosian basilicas.
Between May 2 and Nov. 17, 2006 excavations were carried out that brought to light a marble sarcophagus 2.5 meters long and about 1.2 meters long, which rested on layer of clay floor dating from 390, the time during which the Constantinian basilica was expanded.
Beginning in 2007, visitors were allowed to enter below the basilica’s altar to pray before the tomb of the Apostle.