Monday, June 29, 2009

The Pope: Looks Like Saint Paul is in the Tomb of Saint Paul

There's a world of difference between saying that something is very possible, that it may be; and saying that it is an established fact, that it is.

That distinction seems to have been lost in some of the news from Rome this weekend. That's understandable, perhaps, considering what the news was.

It looks like there's pretty good forensic evidence that the body in Saint Paul's tomb is, in fact, Saint Paul's. That may sound daft, but there really was reason to question the identity of the man buried there. I'll get to that after a long quote.

One of the less breathless, and more detailed, news accounts of what the Pope said about Saint Paul's tomb is what Zenit published:
"...The Pope presided at first vespers this evening for the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, which marked the conclusion of the Pauline Year. The celebration took place at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where it has traditionally been believed St. Paul was buried.

" 'An authentic scientific analysis' conducted on the sarcophagus conserved in the basilica, the Holy Father said, 'seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that these are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul.'

" 'A tiny hole was drilled into the sarcophagus -- which over many centuries had never been opened -- in order to insert a special probe, which revealed traces of costly purple colored linen fabric, laminated with pure gold and a blue fabric with linen filaments,' Benedict XVI explained.

" 'Grains of red incense and protein and chalk substances were also discovered,' he continued. 'There were also tiny bone fragments, which were sent for carbon-14 testing by experts who were unaware of their origin. These were discovered to belong to a person who had lived between the first and second centuries.'..."
The Zenit article discusses, very briefly, what's happened at the site of the Holy See over about two millennia. The tomb of Saint Paul was a pilgrimage destination from very early in the history of the Church. After a while, the exact location of the tomb was lost.

Sound crazy? I don't think so.

How Could Anybody Lose an Entire Tomb?

Until around the end of the third century, Christians weren't constantly hunted down and killed, but they didn't quite shake their persona non grata status until Emperor Constantine decided, for whatever reason, to become a Christian.

As Emperor, Constantine had a basilica built at the site of Saint Paul's tomb. In the fourth century, "the so-called basilica of the 'Three Emperors' (Theodosius, Valentinian II and Arcadius)" was built in the same general area. (Zenit)

Then Rome made an awkward transition from being the capital of a mighty empire, to being a city on the Italian peninsula.

Over the centuries, basilicas were built, renovated, and replaced. All on the same site.

I'm not terribly surprised that well-documented information about the exact location of one tomb, no matter how important, could get lost as a sequence of major construction projects, political upheavals, economic disasters, and cultural changes washed over the site.

I am, however, impressed that, as the centuries added up, tradition kept an altar over what we think is, quite likely, the tomb of Saint Paul.

"Quite Likely?" Where's that Religious Certainty?

I've run into the idea that people who are "religious" believe that some things are very definitely so, others are definitely not so, and that there's no middle ground. I think there are people who have no room for uncertainty in their minds: and that they'd be somewhat uncomfortable with a thorough knowledge of Catholicism.

Take the veneration of relics, images, and other objects. That's "veneration," not "adoration," and there's an important difference. As St. Basil said, "whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2132)

The Catholic Church has some things that Catholics must believe: dogmas. There are other things that it's okay for us to believe, or not.

There's another category of things that it's okay for us to believe, or not believe. Take the situation with Ida Peerdeman of Amsterdam, Holland, as an example. She reported that the Blessed Virgin Mary had asked to be known as Our Lady of All Nations. Lots of people claim to have seen Mary, flying saucers, or Elvis. Someone earnestly feeling that something is so, doesn't make it true. The Catholic Church, as usual, investigated the apparition that Peerdeman reported. This time, the investigation found that what Ida Peerdeman witnessed was "'of a supernatural origin'".

What we do with that finding is up to us:
"...In a Letter of 3 May 2002, Raphael Soffner of the public affairs office of the diocese of Haarlem affirmed to EWTN that the public veneration of Our Lady of All Nations by title, image and prayer, is permitted to Catholics by decision of the Bishop of Haarlem, 'with the consent of the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome'. Catholics may make 'a personal judgment according to their conscience' regarding the messages and apparition...."

Back to the Tomb of Saint Paul

I'm not terribly surprised that the location of Saint Paul's tomb was retained, with a pretty high degree of accuracy, through massive construction projects, the fall of the Roman Empire, and the passage of around 19 centuries. I'm also not terribly surprised that detailed documentation that's up to the Catholic Church's standards, isn't available. Maybe it does exist, and is buried in an archive somewhere. We just don't know.

As important as where Saint Paul was buried is, it's not exactly the most important fact for the Church.

Me? I think the odds are very strong that what we think is Saint Paul's tomb is just that: the resting place of the body of Saint Paul, the apostle. But, if it turns out that it isn't: it's not going to shake my faith.

Which threatens to get me onto another topic.

More-or-less related posts: In the news: Background:
Update/correction (June 29, 2009)

I failed to proof this post, and as a result allowed a major blunder to be made. I'd replaced "Paul" with "Peter" throughout, with one exception.

The error is corrected, and I intend to remember the importance of proofing after this.


Brigid said...

The quote talks about Saint Paul's tomb. Might want to take a second look at your text and title.

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...



Ouch. I wrote this too fast: and should have proofed it. The post is corrected, and I'll do an erratum.

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