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, according to Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the Archpriest of St Peter's Basilica.
Cardinal Angelo Comastri reflected on the lessons to be gleaned from these tours when he spoke with journalists in June 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 can be viewed without affecting the delicate balance of the internal microclimate, which is constantly monitored by a high-precision computerised system.
After the presentation of this restoration, Cardinal Comastri referred to 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.
'Peter came to Rome where 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.'
In fact, he continued, 'we can almost touch with our hand the tomb where the first Christians of Rome placed the body of the Apostle Peter'. 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).
The restoration of the area, he said, made 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.
'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. 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'.'
Zenit News Agency