Monday afternoon, 1 April, we had the joy and the honour of accompanying Pope Francis along this unique path. From the level of the Vatican Grottos we descended to the necropolis: a jump back 1,800 years. Up until 1939-40, this site was buried because the architects working for Constantine, in 320, in order to fashion a level floor of the first basilica, filled in the sloping land of the Vatican Hill. Today, after excavations, everything has prodigiously re-emerged.
His first stop was before the Egyptian Mausoleum (which dates back to the 2nd century). In this mausoleum amid many pagan tombs there is also a Christian tomb. Christianity in fact, like yeast, was penetrating the pagan world. The Pope exclaimed in admiration: “It’s like this today, too!”.
We then made a second stop before the funerary stele of a man called Istatilio. He was certainly Christian: on his grave is the monogram xp of Christ. On the stele is inscribed: “He was at peace with everyone and never caused strife”. The Pope, after reading the phrase, looked at us and said: “that is a beautiful programme of life”. When we had reached at the place of the tomb of the Apostle Peter I saw the Holy Father transfixed, visibly moved, before the white wall covered with graffiti, testimonies to us even today of devotion to the Apostle Peter.
Climbing back up the stairs and having reached the Clementine Chapel, Pope Francis became absorbed in prayer and repeated with a loud voice the three professions of Peter: “Lord, You are the Christ, Son of the Living God”; “Lord, to whom do we go? You have the words of eternal life”; “Lord, You know all things! You know that I love you!”. At that moment, we had the distinct impression that the life of Peter rose out of centuries past and became present and living in the current Successor of the Apostle Peter.
With me were: Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, delegate of the Fabric of St Peter’s, Mons. Alfred Xuereb and those responsible for the necropolis, Pietro Zander and Mario Bosco. When we took our leave of the Holy Father we thought that he returned to his residence comforted by the echo of Jesus’ words: “You are Peter, the rock on whom I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.