Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Relics of St. Peter

January 23, 2011

Peace and Good,

I finished the second and last week of "finishing school" for the new provincials and secretaries of the order. This was a smaller group than the first. Most of them were Italian, but we also had a couple from the US, a couple from Honduras, one from Mexico, one from the Philippines, and one from Lebanon. You can really tell how international the order is when we all come together for things like this. Talking with the friar from Lebanon (his jurisdiction is Lebanon and Turkey), he spoke of trying to witness to the Christian faith in a predominantly Muslim part of the world. Every Tuesday, our Church in Istambul is packed with Muslims who want to light candles to St. Anthony. (Tuesday is traditionally St. Anthony day.) When they are in the church, the friars make themselves available to talk. They are not there to convert anyone, just give witness. Certainly, if someone wants to convert, that is great, but it is difficult for they are always disowned by their Muslim families. The friars can share the faith within the church, but they cannot prostelytize in any way outside of the church.

One of the highlights of the week was the pilgrimage we made to St. Peter's Basilica. We visited the "scavi," which means the excavations. In 1940, Pope Pius XII ordered excavations to the made under the main altar to see if they could find the tomb of St. Peter. What they found amazed the archaeologists. They found an entire cemetary that dated back to the first century AD. St. Peter had been buried near the top of a hill. When Constantine wanted to build the basilica, he cut off the top of the hill and filled in the valley to level it out. Then he built a massive basilica over the site of the tomb. When Pope Julius II tore down that basilica and built the present basilica, he had the main altar placed over the spot of the main altar of the original basilica. The actual burial site of Peter was lost for centuries. In 1941, the archaeologists found a burial site and a modest monument. As they checked it out, it was surrounded by other tombs of Christians (they can tell they are Christians because of the Christian symbols on the tombstone and the fact that there is a death date. Pagans would write how long the person lived, the Christians would put when the person was born to heaven.) They also found grafiti around the site that pointed to this being Peter's tomb. They found a few bones that had not disintegrated. They were covered with clay (for tradition was that Peter had been buried in the earth first and only later were his relics placed in the monument that was built over his tomb). They were of a man who was between 60 and 70 when he died, robust, etc. Pope Paul VI had the relics placed in a simple plastic box and put back in their original site. The simplicity of it all is very moving.

On the way out we passed by Pope John Paul II's tomb. I asked when his body is going to be moved (for they are moving him upstairs for the beatification on May 1st), but the guide did not know.

This week I will be in Rome for another set of meetings. Then, Sunday I scoot up to Assisi for a one day meeting. A week from Tuesday I head over to the States for a number of assignments.

I finished a couple of books. One was a short story be Honore de Balzac called Farewell. It is the story of a woman and a French officer who took part in the retreat from Moscow with Napoleon. It gives an incredibly good picture of the horror of the experience. We often hear of the events in history, but this story helps one remember that those events involved individuals.

A second book was the story of Hannibal by Jacob Abbott. I have read a few of Abbott's biographies. He has done a whole series of them on historic figures. This was not his best. It is interesting to see how he tries to defend British colonial policy in his depiction of Hannibal. He wrote this at the end of the 19th century when the sun really did not set on the British empire. Abbott always shows Hannibal as wrong and the Roman as simply defending themselves when the story is much more complex than that.

Hope you have a good week.
fr. Jude


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