I spent the summer of 2011 in France and Italy studying Church history and architecture. It was a great opportunity that few seminarians have, which I did not earn in any way. Along the way we got to see many things which I will never have the opportunity to see again, and meet people whose lives of service to the Church are unrivaled in the world today. But there was one thing I learned about which I still think about at least once per week.
Under St. Peter’s Basilica there are tunnels and chapels and tombs from long before any church was built there. And among them, St. Peter’s own remains were found during an archaeological excavation in 1942. His bones were wrapped in a purple cloak, placed in a niche in the wall amongst the other martyrs of his time, and marked by a simple inscription on the wall reading (in Greek) Petros eni — “Peter is here.” This is about 25 feet directly below the altar in the center of St Peter’s Basilica, just as we had believed for centuries before the archaeologists found his remains.
But why? Why had they gone to all the trouble of finding his burial place? Did they not believe? Did Pope Pius XII (who hired the archaeologists) not believe?
In today’s Gospel, we are reminded of St. Thomas, who refused to believe without proof of Christ’s resurrection. While we call him “Doubting Thomas,” we are rarely different. There are very few things in our lives which we will take on faith, and most things we believe absolutely are already proven. As human beings, we have a desire to have something we can truly believe in, but we naturally make it difficult, in order that those things we believe in might not be questioned. Of course, the finding of St. Peter’s bones didn’t convince anyone who didn’t already believe, nor will seeing them in person. The scientific evidence shows that the remains are of a man from the right time, of the right age, who was crucified upside down, and buried in exactly the right place. But no one who wouldn’t believe without the evidence could ever be convinced by it.
This is where true Faith comes in. Pope Pius XII wished that this would be one more piece of proof to non-believers. He commissioned archaeologists to find St. Peter’s remains because he knew that they would be there. His hope was that it would not only strengthen our faith, but lead many to be believers. The trouble is, most of us don’t have the faith of “Doubting Thomas,” and most who see God working directly in their lives will dismiss it as chance or coincidence. Our fault is the arrogance of our time, which Pope Pius XII tried to flip on its head.
This primary arrogance of ours is that we believe we know better than generations before us. This is the opposite of the way most people thought before us, who thought of themselves as caretakers of truths handed down to them. Pope Pius wanted give us a lesson, through modern means, showing that this ancient story is true, and so show us that we must see ourselves as discovering these truths anew, but not creating truths. It would have been a great lesson to learn, but for many, this was easy to dismiss. Those who have received the gift of Faith obtain the Truth it has revealed, and those who reject this great gift continue to search in all the wrong places. If we would only see ourselves as uncovering Truth, we could let this arrogance slip away, and see our God behind it all in His greatness.
But we will always have a bit of doubt in our hearts. This is part of our fallen nature, our imperfection which we must strive against. Let us see ourselves in light of the place we hold in the history of God’s Creation. Let us all at least succeed in this enough that our own doubts do not lead others astray.