17-February-2005 -- Catholic World News Brief |

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Rome, Feb. 17 (CWNews.com) - Vatican archeologists believe that they have identified the tomb of St. Paul in the Roman basilica that bears his name.

A sarcophagus which may contain the remains of St. Paul was identified in the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, reports Giorgio Filippi, a archeology specialist with the Vatican Museums. The sarcophagus was discovered during the excavations carried out in 2002 and 2003 around the basilica, which is located in the south of Rome. Having reached what they believe is a positive identification of the tomb, Vatican experts will soon make a public announcement of their discovery. "The tomb that we discovered is the one that the popes and the Emperor Theodosius (379- 395) saved and presented to the whole world as being the tomb of the apostle," Filippi reports.

The discovery was made by a team composed exclusively of experts from the Vatican Museum. They had undertaken their exploration in response to a request from the administrator of St. Paul's basilica, Archbishop Francesco Gioia. During the Jubilee Year 2000, the archbishop noticed that thousands of pilgrims were inquiring about the location of St. Paul's tomb. The excavation effort was guided by 19th-century plans for the basilica, which was largely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1823.

An initial survey enabled archeologists to reconstruct the shape of the original basilica, built early in the 4th century. A second excavation, under the main altar of the basilica, brought the Vatican team to the sarcophagus, which was located on what would have been ground level for the original 4th-century building.

Under the altar a marble plaque was still visible, dating back to the 4th century, and bearing the inscription: "Apostle Paul, martyr." Filippi remarks that surprisingly, "Nobody ever thought to look behind that plaque." When the Vatican team looked, they found the sarcophagus.

As an archeologist, Giorgio Filippi says that he has no special curiosity to learn whether the remains of St. Paul are still inside that sarcophagus. The tomb should not be opened merely to satisfy curiosity, he insists. There is no doubt, he says, that St. Paul was buried on the site, "because this basilica was the object of pilgrimages by emperors; people from all around the world came to venerate him, having faith that he was present in this basilica."

The Vatican archeologist said that Church officials would now have to decide whether to undertake further explorations around the tomb, to make the sarcophagus more visible. Archbishop Gioia, questioned about that possibility, was noncommittal. The prelate affirmed only that he would like to "make known the figure of St. Paul and the historic reality" that he is buried in the basilica. According to tradition, St. Paul died under the Emperor Nero, sometime between the years 64 and 67. The Emperor Constantine began the construction of a basilica on the site of his death, along the Ostian Way, in 386; the building was enlarged and completed a half-century later.

In St. Peter's Basilica, excavations that were begun in June 1939 finally uncovered the tomb of the first Pope in 1941. But it was 35 more years before the Church officially attested to the authenticity of those remains, in a statement released by Pope Paul VI in June 1976.

A similar span of years could elapse before the Church confirms that the tomb discovered in St. Paul's Basilica is truly that of the apostle--if such an affirmation can ever be made. But the archeologist whose team discovered the tomb is already convinced.

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