Secrets of the Vatican: Journey to the tomb of Saint Peter

March 4, 2013 9:05:11 PM PST
As the world prepares to meet a new pope, Eyewitness News brings you exclusive Vatican stories you won't see anywhere else.

Years ago, we received unprecedented access to the Vatican, including a place beneath St. Peter's Basilica where cameras and people are nearly never allowed.

It's a place where St. Peter himself is buried -- the man considered the very first pope.

If the dead could speak, this basilica would be screaming. Popes of the past are everywhere, even entombed in glass.

Directly under the floor where millions of visitors walk and where the public is not allowed are hidden chambers -- tunnels, lined with dead popes.

And around the corner, a small hole leads to underground tunnels, a large graveyard and to what is believed to be Peter's burial site.

Father Joseph Carolla, a Houstonian, has spent many years studying Peter's life, death and burial.

We continued our walk under the main altar for quite some time with no camera lights allowed.

The tunnels are dark and humid, an eerie feeling when walking through 2,000 years of history.

The burial grounds date back to the 1st century, but the excavation didn't begin until the 1940s.

"One of the things that they did notice in the excavation was that there were many different tombs and even tombs of popes around the tomb of Peter. So even in the ancient church, they knew: here is the grave of a holy man," Carolla said.

We were only a few feet away from Peter's tomb, up narrow steps off to the right is another large tomb. But deep inside the cave, on the far back wall, is a wall where in the 1940s archeologist discovered the words, written in Greek: "Peter is here."

Scientists say the bones are of an adult male around 65 years old. And something unique: every part of the skeleton was found except the feet. There wasn't a single bone from his feet.

"They realized then, if a man had been crucified upside down, that the easiest way to remove him from the cross would be to take a sword and cut off his feet," Carolla explained.

The apostle Peter's bones supposedly remain far below the high altar where the public is not allowed.

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