By Marta Lago
VATICAN CITY, JUNE 10, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Touring a necropolis beneath the Vatican is a lesson in life and a chance to go back in time to see the faith of the first Christians, says the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Cardinal Angelo Comastri reflected on the lessons to be gleaned from these tours when he recently spoke with journalists after a presentation of the restoration of the Valerii Mausoleum, one of the most important monuments of the Roman necropolis located under the Vatican Basilica.
The crypt, which dates from the second century and is famous for its stucco decorations, is located in the middle of the route through the old necropolis that leads to the tomb of St. Peter. The stuccowork was in need of restoration because it had been damaged by the instability of the microclimate in the necropolis and by earlier restoration using inappropriate materials.
The 10-month operation was carried out using scalpels, mini drills and, for the most delicate areas, laser equipment. Furthermore, by studying stucco fragments conserved in the storerooms of the Fabric of St. Peter’s, it was also possible to recompose three hermae, square pillars of stone topped by a bust or head.
Finally, the monument was enclosed within a glass cover, so it may be viewed without affecting the delicate balance of the internal microclimate, which is constantly monitored by a high-precision computerized system. New illumination, using fiber optic cables, makes it possible to admire the colored surfaces, frescoed to imitate polychrome marble, and the white stucco decorations, modeled to replicate marble statues.
After the presentation of this restoration, in an informal conversation with members of the press, Cardinal Comastri stressed the importance of the Vatican necropolis: “We must make everyone understand that the basilica was not built here because of a whim, but because it has a history underneath that has been preserved, protected with extreme scruple, and it is the history of the Apostle Peter.”
Here is Peter
“Peter came to Rome,” the cardinal continued. “Here he met with martyrdom during Nero’s persecution. Then he was taken by Christians, because Roman law allowed the recovery of bodies of the condemned to give them burial.
“Peter was brought to the point where at present the papal altar is erected. He was buried there and we can say that for 2,000 years, that site is the justification of the presence of the Bishop of Rome next to the tomb of Peter, that is, of the Pope.”
In fact, “we can almost touch with our hand the tomb where the first Christians of Rome placed the body of the Apostle Peter,” he added. One can see, “extremely clearly, around the place of Peter’s burial, a whole series of testimonies of devotion” to the apostle in that precise point, for example, the most famous inscription in Greek: “Petros eni” (Here is Peter).
For Cardinal Comastri, the visit to a necropolis “is a lesson of life, because death is part of life, it is inseparable. The ancient peoples respected the dead, and in this they were surely more civilized.”
They “would never have violated a tomb, something that happens today and is a sign of a civilization’s sickness,” he reflected.
Journey in time
The restoration of the area, “making it possible for all to admire its beauty, allows us to reconstruct the first centuries and to go exactly to the heart of the Petrine burial place as we move in time,” continued the Italian cardinal.
In the Vatican Grottoes, to go down a few steps means to go back 1,600 years, to 320, when Constantine’s architects buried that area, he explained.
“If we continue to walk, we arrive at the second century,” Cardinal Comastri continued, “[following] an itinerary in which Christianity was still in the beginnings, like an explosion, but still being a small reality. [Then] we come to the first century, to the time of Nero.”
“On seeing Peter’s tomb in the earth, one wonders how Christianity was able to survive, persecuted from the beginning by a powerful and aggressive emperor like Nero,” the cardinal said, “There one hears again — that’s what happens for me — Jesus’ words: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church.’ Jesus is the guarantee, and it was he that added: ‘And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.'”
The first Christians trusted this promise, despite the persecutions, the cardinal reflected. And “after 2,000 years, we can say to ourselves: It was worth it to trust. The guarantee goes beyond our persons, because it is as if Jesus said: ‘It is I who build on your frailty.'”