Vatican’s Scavi Tour a moving must-see

I was recently had the fortune to attend a pilgrimage to Rome with the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture on the occasion of the 2018 Synod of the Bishops.  It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best week of my life. Among my favorite experiences was our afternoon at St. Peter’s Basilica. After a phenomenal tour of the Basilica by Professor Liz Lev of the Pontifical University Athenaeum, we were privileged to go on a tour of the  Scavi, the excavations below St. Peter’s.

The Scavi had a sense of heightened importance and sacrality before it even began.  After passing security with the Vatican Gendarmerie, you walk past a handful of Swiss Guards and make your way to the modest Scavi office on the south outer wall of the basilica.  After presenting paperwork and receiving our tickets, Deacon Joe from the Diocese of Orange, a student at the Pontifical North American College who volunteers to lead Scavi tours, gave us some preliminary information.  While we would be underground and the temperature about 65 (it was around 75 in Rome that day), it would feel a toasty 100 degrees due to humidity levels of around 98%. The humidity is kept artificially high to help preserve the various frescoes painted on the walls of the mausoleums in the necropolis we would soon enter.  After these basics, we walked into a roped-off corridor on the side of the basilica and entered into one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Deacon Joe had a mission in his tour that became clearer as time went on— he wanted to walk us through the discovery of the Vatican catacombs as the archaeologists who first discovered it under Pope Pius XII did.  That means that the tour was pretty confusing at first. We were given a lot of general information that didn’t make much sense, with the promise that things would become clearer as time went on. We descended down a small metal staircase and 2000 years into the past. The various mausoleums painted a picture of pagan Rome and the intense filial piety expressed for deceased loved ones.  One of the mausoleums, which dates from around 140 AD, is adorned with Christian imagery; Deacon explained that the discovery of these frescoes and mosaics changed contemporary thinking on Christian tolerance in the Roman Empire, insofar as some toleration must have existed for them to have their own mausoleums.

Eventually, we arrived at the Clementine Chapel, which is undeniably one of the most beautiful liturgical spaces in all of St. Peters.  Here, Deacon Joe explained some of the anecdotal history behind the discovery of St. Peter’s bones, and then gave us a few simple pieces of information; we would go through a door to his right and up a small set of stairs; we would see a niche in the wall, inside of which are 3 small plastic boxes; and in the farthest box to the right is a large piece of jawbone.  With this in mind, we followed him up the stairs and stood silently. Deacon Joe proceeded to read Matthew 16:13-20— the famous “who do you say that I am” dialogue where Peter says, “you are the Christ.” About halfway through I realized what Deacon was saying— these are the bones of St. Peter, and that piece of jawbone was the first to ever proclaim Christ. I was overwhelmed with emotion and broke down into tears.  

The Scavi tour was the highpoint of my pilgrimage to Rome.  As an amateur historian, it was edifying. As a Catholic, it was transcendent.  To view the relics of Peter, the rock on whom the Church is founded, was among the most emotional and elevating experiences of my life.  It gave me a new appreciation for our Apostolic faith, for our sacred Tradition, and for the power of the witness of the lives of our saints.

If you’re interested in going on the Scavi tour, be advised there is generally a 3-6 month waiting period.  If you are a U.S. citizen, contact the Pontifical North American College for information on how to attend.

Zach Pearson is a sophomore PLS and Music major.  It is his sincere hope that you learn to love Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus as much as he does, ‘cause it’ll change your life. You can contact Zach at