At twenty past eight I was shaken out of a very deep sleep in which I was dreaming that I had just won a marathon (sometimes the subconscious doesn’t bother with subtlety in its imagery) by Andrew telling me that I was sleeping through breakfast and had better get up. We had coffee and hot milk, bread and fruit and cookies with our hostel hosts, till finally around 10 staggered out the door and into day 70, the very very last day of the official pilgrimage.
First we stopped at San Anselmo, since Roger is good friends with a Benedictine who teaches there a few months every year (though he wasn’t currently in residence). Then we meandered over one of Rome’s 7 hills—they are pretty small hills, I have to say—until we came to a ridge that let us look over the Circus Maximus, momentarily occupied not by chariots and horses but by camouflaged planes and other pieces of large military equipment on display for what seemed to be an army fair. Up Via San Teodoro and we found an organic foods fair—enjoyed some samples while we were at it—and then tried to find a way into the Roman Forum. We seem to have gone exactly the wrong way to get to the entrance, though there were supposed to be some where we walked, at least according to my guide book. All the same we got a nice look at the fragments of Roman civilization. Pretty darn impressive after all these years and numerous sackings of the city!
Then, as time was slipping by, we marched across the medieval section of Rome, now chockablock with jewelry and wicker and lamp shops and other odds and ends, back across the Tiber, and almost into the welcoming arms that form the colonnade around the Vatican… except that were were blocked by what we conservatively estimate to be 120,000 Italian teenagers streaming away from an 11 a.m. papal mass. We had planned to grab a bite to eat before our Necropolis visit, but there seemed to be really no time to push through the mass of people and still make our appointment. So we sent Zeke off with Roger and Ginny one last time to have lunch (meeting up with Vince and Sally) while Andrew and I raced on for our tour.
But the pilgrimage decided to throw one last high-speed chase at us. We took a side street up to the Piazza San Pietro and started hunting for the free bag check, which our ticket for the exhibition promised for Andrew’s oversized backpack with camera equipment. It didn’t bother to mention, though, that you’d have to wait two hours on line with all the other people waiting to get into the Basilica if you wanted to use that service. We wouldn’t be allowed in the crypt with the backpack, so we had little choice but to race to the sandwich shop that we had decided to skip in the first place to leave the backpack behind, trying the whole time to get Roger on the phone and failing. When we found our clan we threw our stuff down, grabbed bread and mozzarella practically out of their hands, choked it down as we ran back up, and then began our second frantic search for the Holy Office Gate, vaguely identified as being “on the left.” It was finally the sight of the Swiss guards in their comically stripey outfits that got us on the right track. We were informed we had to wait 7 minutes and 5 seconds before we could enter. We dutifully did so.
When our time was up we marched into the Vatican, picked up our real tickets, and in short order were ushered into the backside of the museum where the Scavi tour begins. We headed down a staircase to the Necropolis, which really was a city of the dead back in the Roman pagan times: the cemetery was above ground with a main street down the middle, each plot having its own front door and windows, painted walls on the inside with urns and mosaics to keep the dead happy and comfortable in the life to come.
As our tour guide explained, when Constantine decided to build a basilica in the traditional location of St. Peter’s bones, he had to pacify the powerful pagan families by promising not to knock over their cemetery. Instead he just filled it all in with dirt. More dirt and more walls went in during the 16th century renovation. The only reason it’s been literally unearthed today is because Pope Pius XI left in his will the wish to be buried next to Peter, so Pope Pius XII ordered archaeologists to ascertain whether, in fact, Peter was below the main altar of the basilica, as the tradition had it. Inconveniently this all happened in 1939, when a certain nation to the north had an unholy interest in religious artefacts, so only 5 archaeologists did all the digging in secret, at night, removing something like 40,000 cubic meters of dirt and dumping it in the garden out back—that was a plausible excuse for the sudden appearance of all that dirt, apparently. A great deal more ancient stuff lies beneath the Vatican than can be excavated without the whole basilica caving in, which must be a bitter disappointment for Roman archaeologists now, though it does give free rein to the imagination.
And yes, at the very end of our tour, we did see with our own eyes what we have every reason to believe are some fragments of Peter’s bones, found in a tiny shrine behind very ancient graffiti stating in Greek “Petros eni”—Peter is here. Various scientific tests confirm that the bones belonged to a strong male who lived to be between 60 and 70 and died in the 1st century; all the bones belong only to this one person, with no other bones around, unlike other spots in the Necropolis. There are other good details too: we couldn’t bring the camera in for pictures, but you can take your own virtual tour on the Vatican website and see and hear the story for yourself.
So we finished our pilgrimage as we’d hoped, visiting the tombs of Peter and Paul, symbolically representing for these past 500 years the Catholic and Protestant churches respectively. The apostles had their differences but they both gave their lives as martyrs for their Lord in this same city of Rome. We pray that our common witness—martyria in Greek—can bring Catholics and Lutherans together too, despite their differences.
On the way out we got to glimpse a few more papal tombs, including that of John Paul II, and ducked into the Basilica itself without having to spend hours on line for a quick look at Michelangelo’s Pieta. Luther would’ve seen the current St. Peter’s only in its beginning phases, as work had begun on it just a few years before his visit.
When we came out, though, it was time for a big goodbye. Roger and Ginny had to get back to camper and campground tonight for an early start tomorrow on the trek back north and in a few days their flight back to the U.S. We’ll actually see them again a week from tomorrow, but after 35 days together with all the adventures we’d had in the great white whale, whether good or bad, it was a bittersweet moment. We certainly couldn’t have managed this without them. Their presence along with us has been a huge blessing.
Well, after all that we were pretty worn out, so it was another pizza dinner and then back on the overstuffed subways back to our hostel for another night, really truly done now with our ecumenical pilgrimage.
But the story isn’t over yet! We have an extended “post-pilgrimage” of sorts going on for another month, so please stay tuned! Tomorrow we’ll visit the German Lutheran congregation in Rome that always celebrates Reformation Sunday ecumenically with a Catholic preacher. Monday we’re flying to Germany for a couple days in Wittenberg, teaching a group of 15 Lutheran pastors from around the world in an annual 2-week seminar sponsored by the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg together with the Lutheran World Federation. A few days after that we’ll head home just briefly before flying to the U.S. on Nov. 7 for a month, including our presentations at Augsburg College, Lenoir-Rhyne University, and Roanoke College. Our very last gig will be at the University of Heidelberg on Dec. 6 where Andrew will speak at a conference on “Sustainable Mobility for the 21st Century”—after two months and more walking in a world not built for pedestrians, he’ll have quite a bit to say to the subject.
So if you’ve been enjoying our trek so far, please check back regularly for the next month. As Yogi Berra so insightfully put it, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”