Woman is forgotten hero in search for St. Peter’s tomb

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City (Image by Alvesgaspar via Wikipedia)

First in reviews of recommended summer reads: The Fisherman’s Tomb (John O’Neill)

John O’Neill, an attorney best known for his political writing, has penned a fascinating account of a secret mission undertaken by The Vatican. The mission’s modern seeds were sown in 1939 when a Christian grave was discovered beneath the Vatican. The surprise in that find is that the grave dated to pagan times when Christianity was oppressed by the Romans. Another surprise in the outcome of the search is that a woman, Margherita Guarducci, is largely responsible for its success. 

Book cover/The Fisherman's Tomb
Book cover/The Fisherman’s Tomb

Guarducci was an expert in archaeology at a time when the field didn’t have many females.

The search began under a male, a Vatican insider. However, there was uncertainty about a first set of bones The Vatican believed to be those of St. Peter. Guarducci disproved the original conclusion and set about finding what are now widely perceived to be Peter’s bones.

The book recounts how the search began, and it gives a great deal of detail (complete with photos) about the Scavi tour of the necropolis beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s supposed to be hard to get a ticket for that tour, and once you read the book, you’ll see why. The murals, inscriptions, and mosaics are remarkable, dating to Roman times when Christians were severely persecuted.

Image of St. Peter: Marco Zoppo (1433-1478), National Gallery of Art (via Wikipedia)
Image of St. Peter: Marco Zoppo (1433-1478), National Gallery of Art (via Wikipedia)

At the heart of the book is a major brawl between Guarducci and the Vatican insider who had a doctorate in archaeology, Antonio Ferrua. Ferrua believed he’d found Peter’s tomb, but Guarducci proved him wrong. The disagreement set off a virtual war between the two, waged on podiums and in academic journals. Ferrua took a dim view of Guarducci, and he relentlessly attacked her reputation by holding nothing back, including gender-related condemnations.

There’s another hero in the book, an oil man from the US. His name was George Strake, a Texan who’d taken a big risk on an oil field believed to be barren. Turned out it wasn’t. Strake was a devoted Catholic, and he donated large sums of money to fund the search for Peter’s tomb. Strake asked for no recognition of his support.

O’Neill weaves the story of these three key actors in the mystery, along with accounts of different popes, early Christian history, and Biblical clues. The result is a very interesting book that, frankly, I didn’t think would interest me when I first heard about it.

The Fisherman’s Tomb is published by Our Sunday Visitor, a company that isn’t a big Northeastern publishing house but rather a Catholic publishing house that’s more than a century old.

St. Peter is colloquially called the first Pope by many believers, but Protestants usually view Peter more like the chief disciple rather than a pope.

There’s another intriguing story in the book, although it’s anecdotal. Based on Guarducci’s writings, the author explains how the emperor Constantine, “a pagan for most or all of his life…acceded to the requests of his Christian mother, Helena, and allowed a church to be built over the site traditionally held to be Peter’s grave near the top of Vatican Hill.” [pg. 47] Helena is a fascinating character whose story is told in ancient accounts, and in a way, it’s likely she is partly responsible for the end of persecution of Christians such as that occurring under the emperors preceding her son.

O’Neill’s book also includes stories of priests and Vatican diplomats who took part in the search.

Overall, The Fisherman’s Tomb is a friendly summer read. It’s not very long and it delves into a mystery that intrigued church leaders and believers for centuries. Much detail is provided without the narrative becoming pedantic. The book is currently at the top of charts on Amazon.

In 2013 Pope Francis declared the bones Guarducci believed were Peter’s are indeed the bones of the saint. While that may not be perfectly provable scientifically, the proclamation appears to satisfy the faithful because the proclamation is based on scientific research carried out by Guarducci and others.

(Review by Kay B. Day/May 21, 2018)

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