Rome is a great destination, but if you can’t get there any time soon, you might consider Milwaukee, at least between now and the end of the month. The Milwaukee Public Museum is hosting a fantastic exhibit called “Saint Peter and the Vatican: Legacy of the Popes.” I had a chance to tour the exhibit on a recent Saturday and found it to be well worth the six-hour drive from Minneapolis.
The gold, silver and jewels in the crosses, chalices and other items on display are striking, but the most impressive part of the exhibit for me was the historical account of the popes and St. Peter’s Basilica. The story of the largest church in the world points to two very controversial periods in the history of the Catholic Church.
The first period was three or four decades after the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Often, it is purported that Peter, the impetuous apostle whom Christ designated the leader of His sheep, died in 64 a.d. This exhibit notes, however, that Rome was largely destroyed by fire, perhaps set by the emperor Nero himself, in 68 a.d. Nero blamed Christians for the fire, so there is speculation that both Peter and Paul were executed at that time. Either way, the belief is Peter was crucified upside down in Nero’s circus, or stadium, and buried in a non-descript grave nearby. After the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he built a church on the site of the grave, which eventually became the St. Peter’s Basilica we know today.
Fast forward to the 20th century. In 1939, workers accidentally discovered the cemetery below the basilica. Pope Pius XII authorized exploration. They discovered monuments which appeared to honor Peter. They found human bones of a man who was ultimately declared to be Peter. The skeleton believed to be Peter was cut off at the feet, which scholars speculate is consistent with Peter’s execution. Supporters likely stole his body in the middle of the night, ripping him in haste from the cross. An ax may have been used to cut his feet which were nailed down. In 1968, Pope Paul VI declared the find to be the actual bones of Peter.
As the Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit explains, the Vatican offers a tour under St. Peter’s Basilica where one can view the burial place and the bones. My wife and I actually took that tour when we were in Rome in 1994. It is impressive, given the proximity of the find, which is directly below the high altar of the church.
But the bones are controversial. Of course there is no way to know for sure whose bones they are. Many scholars claim Peter’s tomb is in Jerusalem. And, another church in Rome, St. John Lateran, has long claimed to have Peter’s skull enshrined in its altar. People who attack Catholicism have been known to point to this discrepancy to prove the fallacy of papal infallibility. A pope’s pronouncement regarding an archeological find, however, does not carry the assurance of infallibility. The Church always has taught that infallibility only applies to papal pronouncements regarding matters of faith and morals.
The other controversial period in history highlighted by St. Peter’s Basilica is the beginning of the 16th century. The original church built on St. Peter’s burial site fell into dangerous disrepair so the construction of a new basilica was begun in 1506. Martin Luther began the reformation in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany. Luther built a following partly because of widespread ill-will generated by the collection of money around Europe for the construction of the basilica in Rome. Many people grumbled about having to pay for a church building they were unlikely to ever see themselves. (Perhaps the debate back then was a little like the one in Minnesota now about whether residents all over the state should pay for a new stadium in the Twin Cities.) Of course there were many other factors that contributed to the rise of the reformation, but the funding arrangement for the new basilica didn’t help.
History is very complicated, filled with conflicts and disputes. The history of the Church is no exception. The Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit gives us a great look back at some of that history. I would encourage everyone to go, if possible, regardless of your faith. My family went on a Saturday and it was very crowded; perhaps the crowds would be smaller during the week. The exhibit originally was scheduled to conclude today, but it has been extended through the end of the month.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
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