I am finishing co-directing the BYU summer study abroad program in Rome this weekend before moving on to Athens for the final week and half of the summer term.
It has been a hot and humid month as Dr. Gary Hatch and I have tried to keep a day ahead of the forty students who joined us. We have seen a lot of Rome and of Italy during the month.
However, Rome has been our base of operation, and during the term, we lived in several different apartments located around Vatican City, the smallest independent nation on earth. Two student apartments, in fact, have direct views of St. Peter’s Basilica from their bedroom windows.
Of course, like other travelers and tourists, we visited the Vatican museums, the Vatican gardens, the Scavi (the first-century necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica), and inside the church itself. The students also attended a papal audience the very first week. On other occasions St. Peter’s magnificent square was a meeting place for the group before we headed off to some other location in the city. Nevertheless, it seems as though we were in the shadow of St. Peter’s every day no matter where we were in the city.
Even for non-Catholics, St. Peter’s is a must place to visit in Rome. Michelangelo’s Pieta is located in the church, and his dome looms over the skyline of Rome itself, beckoning people to gather at this remarkable site.
According a long-held tradition, Peter was crucified in Nero’s Circus and buried nearby sometime between AD 64 and 66. At some fairly early date, maybe by the middle of the second century AD, Christians marked a tomb they believed contained the bones of Peter. Later, Constantine erected a church on the site in the fourth century. Eventually, Pope Julius II began the construction of a new church, the current basilica, on the site in 1505. Beginning in 1939, the Vatican sponsored several archeological investigations under the Basilica where they found the remnants of the first church building and some first-century tombs.
Today, visitors to the Scavi are shown a specific tomb Catholics believe is that of St. Peter, directly under the current high altar covered by Bernini’s canopy directly under Michelangelo’s magnificent dome. Although most likely not the tomb of the fisherman from Galilee, there is something remarkable about visiting a site that has been the focus of pilgrimages for nearly two thousand years. And while we may never know exactly what happened to Peter (where, how, and when he died), there is something that makes us think about him in the shadow of the basilica named after him in this amazing city on the Tiber River.