Have you had a time to visit the Vatican Splendors Exhibition taking place at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland? It is really honor for us to host 2000 years of Vatican art and history because it is one of the largest Vatican collections ever to tour North America—Cleveland is one of only three cities along with St. Petersburg FL and St. Paul MN that host the exhibition—and many items have never before been on public view with Michelangelo items and works by Bernini, Giotto and others. But today I want to bring up one fascinating story that we are often unaware of.
“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” When we hear this statement made by Jesus to Peter, we tend to think that Peter was chosen to be the leader of the apostles after his profession of Jesus’ identity—the Christ, the Son of the living God. Certainly it was a critical moment for Peter to be chosen by God to confess who Jesus was. However, it would be not right to say that the one statement established Peter’s leadership position. We may forget the truth in the second reading, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” (Rom 11:33)
When you enter the Vatican Splendors Exhibition, you first run into the foundations of the church. Obviously the images of Jesus were just beautiful including the Mandylion of Edessa. After that, you find the amazing foundation of the church—the bones of St. Peter. When Peter was crucified upside down on the remote hillside of Rome, his remains were buried by early Christians under severe persecutions who marked on a red rock, saying, “Peter is here.” They secretly visited the tomb of St. Peter with great reverence, building a little monument and hoping to pray before him in public some day. And then as the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the empire’s religion, he started building St. Peter’s Basilica on the top of St. Peter’s tomb. This ancient Basilica lasted almost 1,500 years until the first stone of today’s great St. Peter’s Basilica was laid on April 18, 1506. Bernini, Raphael and Michelangelo contributed to the new St. Peter’s.
“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” The story continues. When I made my pilgrimage to Rome last year, one of the best trips was Scavi Tour—the excavation of beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. When we walked down a staircase through the left side of St. Peter’s, we entered another world—the City of the Dead. The lighting was dim; the air was dry and humid. The cemetery that is beneath St. Peter’s contained the tombs of pagans and Christians in the first three centuries. After walking along a fairly level surface and peering into the mausoleums, we came to another narrow staircase and climbed down. We finally reached the vicinity of St. Peter’s tomb. The graffiti that says, “Peter is here” was found here. And then among many bones scattered around we looked into St. Peter’s bones in a marble box under 33 feet below the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica, directly beneath Michelangelo’s dome. These bones were identified through the scientific test—a man somewhere between 60 and 80 years old. The feet and hands were missing, having been broken off at the ankles and wrists because the crucified body was chopped free before burial.
“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” The Jesus’ saying resonated in me louder and louder, when I knelt down in the small chapel of the original St. Peter’s Basilica under the current St. Peter. Peter who was called the rock by Jesus became the real bedrock of the church not only spiritually but also physically. The man who was hasty in rebuking Jesus when Jesus predicted his Passion, and sentimental asking Jesus to stay in the Mountain top with Elijah and Moses, and suffering from his own weaknesses when he betrayed Jesus three times, gave all his to the church, even his bones. How inscrutable are God’s judgments and how unsearchable his ways when we reflect on the life and death of St. Peter! I was just overwhelmed by being next to St. Peter, understanding that the church is not just a marvelous building or amazing organization that doesn’t have a heart. Rather, the church is the mystery of the people of God as the sign and the instrument of a holy communion of faith, hope and charity empowered by the Lord Jesus Christ. In the midst of that mystery, God’s wisdom perculiary reveals through humanity that is often faulty and self-centered. Nevertheless, God doesn’t judge and discard human weakness, rather, He accepts who we are as we are.
“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Standing and worshiping God on this rock, we see what Jesus meant when he said it to Peter. Let us praise God with all our hearts: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!”