The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search

By John O’Neill

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

In novels, mystery often equates with danger. Whether in fiction or reality, it requires determination, dedication, and a willingness to face the unknown, which can be dangerous on many levels. 

In The Fisherman’s Tomb, by John O’Neill, the quest to find the bones of the man Jesus appointed the first among the apostles, Simon, called Peter, upon which Jesus would build his church, became a 75-year search beneath the Vatican, and fraught with politics and dangers, including a world war. On a religious level, it was a courageous undertaking because, over the centuries, opinions proliferated about whether or not Peter ever entered Rome and whether or not he was crucified there. Was it fact or unsubstantiated legend?

John O’Neill was no stranger to archeology or Ancient Roman history. He had made a lifetime study of Roman Archeology, traveling throughout what was once the Roman World to visit sites and digs. An Annapolis graduate and lawyer, the author of the best-seller, Unfit for Command, and a former U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, it was when he became friends with the children and grandchildren of George Strake that he learned the story of this massive project and its discoveries. O’Neill felt it was a story that had to be told, and it became the book, The Fisherman’s Tomb.

The author acquaints us with the major players. George Strake, the man who financed much of the research. A quiet Texas oilman, and devout Catholic,  Strake was the discoverer of the immense Conroe field in Houston. Two popes. Pius XII, “who, unlike some of his predecessors, saw science – particularly archeology- as an ally, not an enemy of Christianity,” and Paul VI, who brought in an outsider and women. Despite any misgivings or fears about the possibility that Peter was never in Rome and never crucified there, which would have changed and possibly destroyed the traditions dear to the hearts of the faithful,  both popes encouraged and supported the search. The truth, they
felt, was too important.

Pope Pius XII, began the project and was determined to keep it a complete secret except for George Strake. It began in earnest in 1939, with the death of Pius XI, who had one request: “to be buried under St. Peter’s Basilica in a simple grave.” To honor his request, an excavation team began to dig beneath the basilica. When a workman fell through the floor where they were digging, he found himself in a stunning and unknown world that had existed hundreds of years before. A city of the dead where both pagans and early Christians had been buried.

To understand the project fully, O’Neill tackles the ancient Roman world pertinent to the search. In those days, many pagan Romans delighted in blood sports, particularly involving Christians. Under Nero, the worst of all, “even hardened Romans like the historian Tacitus found his treatment of Christians extraordinarily cruel.” During Nero’s rule, two great leaders of the Christian Church, Peter, and Paul met their deaths. Paul, a Hellenistic Jew born in Tarsus and a Roman citizen was beheaded, but Peter met his death hanging upside down on a cross in Nero’s Circus at the foot of Vatican Hill in 64 A.D.  

In 1939, Pius XII assembled a team that eventually ended up being led by Antonio Ferrua, a priest with a degree in archeology. He would remain in control until 1952, when Cardinal Giovani Montini, who would later become Pope Paul VI, invited a brilliant woman, archeologist, and epigraphist, Margherita Guarducci, to tour and study the excavation. And then the sparks began to fly.  Margherita Guarducci, was an archeologist with an expertise in epigraphy. An Epigraphist, according to O’Neill is the Sherlock Holmes of archeology, which Guarducci showed she was. It was Guarducci, who linked and interpreted the signs and partial writings. Exceptional difficulty was added because many of the signs had meanings used for only a few decades.

Contrary to the Ferrua conclusions, Guarducci revealed the actual location of Peter’s tomb and identified the bones already in storage as belonging to Peter, and sadly the best, intentions and lofty goals of the project were then derailed by ego, and professional jealousy. Guarducci’s battle with the Vatican experts was epic, and after Paul VI’s death, her findings were almost obliterated by pride,
sexist prejudices, and professional jealousy. 

The Fisherman’s Tomb is not a dry textbook. It is a page-turner worthy of any well—written mystery novel covering all aspects of the project, from its accidental beginnings to the shift of monies and attention to saving Jews during World War II, and the amazing, and behind-the-scenes individual, George Strake. The book explains the lives of Christians in ancient Rome, the apostle Peter,
and the Great Fire, probably started by Nero, who wanted land and a lot of it to build his palace. He then targeted the Christian sect as those responsible, enflaming the hatred and fears already in existence.

O’Neill addresses the Popes’ gamble in supporting the ongoing search, the archeological dig, and the super problems of digging under the structure of the Basilica and an existing city. The discoveries in the necropolis, and the interpretations of symbols, pieced together the meanings and identifications of the individuals buried there. It was accomplished by the unwelcome involvement of a woman, in a time when the fields of her expertise were dominated by men. 

Guarducci’s story alone is worthy of a biography. The resentment of Ferrua, his revenge discrediting her brilliant findings, and her ultimate victory, which came long after her death, are powerful stories within the story of the search for the Fisherman’s tomb.

The hunt for Peter’s bones is a treasure hunt with twists, and turns, complicated by fears, politics, jealousies, revenge, and vindication. And ultimately, a confirmation of Peter’s presence and crucifixion in Rome. 

A worthy note: O’Neill ends the forward by comparing the current slaughter and persecution of the Christian communities in the Middle East to the fates of their ancient brothers and sisters in faith and contributes all proceeds of this book to their relief.

A great read.

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