· Vatican City ·

What the Church owes to Margherita Guarducci

Margherita Guarducci
27 June 2020

“I thank you, on behalf of myself and the Church, for today and tomorrow”. In one of his last private audiences, Saint Paul VI wanted to thank Margherita Guarducci, the archaeologist and protagonist in the discovery and recognition of the relics of the Apostle Peter in the Vatican Basilica.

It was on 26 June 1968 when Pope Montini announced to the Church and to the world the certified authenticity of the relic’s discovery. And he reaffirmed its importance in his last speech on 28 June, 1978 in which, on those “surviving relics”, he asked “to remain firmly founded in the faith of Peter, which is the stone of our faith”. Due to the stature of her academic profile, the archeologist who had made the discovery needed no introduction.  Born in Florence, Margherita Guarducci - who died in 1999, at the age of 97- was well-known in her field, and a specialist in Greek epigraphy of which she held the chair of full professor until 1973 at the University La Sapienza of Rome; and, which she subsequently taught at the National School of Archaeology.  In addition, she was a member of Italian and foreign scientific academies.  On the behest of Pius XII first, and then of Saint Paul VI she devoted more than forty years of her research activity to the location of the tomb and the identification of the bones of Saint Peter under the altar of Confession in the Vatican Basilica. On behalf of Pius XII from 1956 to 1958 she dedicated herself to the deciphering of the graffiti of the famous “g” wall in the Vatican necropolis, where the remains attributed to the body of the Apostle Peter were found, and the results of which were later published in three volumes (I graffiti sotto la Confessione di San Pietro in Vaticano, [The Graffiti under the Confession of St. Peter in the Vatican],Vatican City 1958).

Professor Guarducci’s memory is very dear to me. I met her at the end of 1989, at her Roman home where she lived with her sister Marola. On several occasions I had gone up to the fifth floor on via della Scrofa, 117, for a visit. I remember her at her desk, with the very rich Greek and Latin text library behind her; her delicate yet firm posture combined with a serene and lively gaze. She was already far ahead of her time, with an intact and rare lucidity of the extraordinary scholar that she was, and accustomed to research and resistance to work which gave her a singular light and at the same time a solid conviction in the conclusions she had drawn from her studies. I remember her recounting one of most vivid stories, when, in 1967, she went down to the Vatican necropolis to accompany the Athenagoras, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople at the behest of Paul VI. She told me that while explaining the results of the research in modern Greek to the Patriarch, they bent down together to read the wall of graffiti with the names of Christ and Mary intertwined with those of Peter on the wall of the loculus where the remains of the Apostle had been found. Athenagoras knelt down on the ground and was moved by it. In 1995, after the death of her sister, who had been of help to her throughout her life, she had to leave the house in Via della Scrofa, accompanied by most of her books, which she could no longer read because she was almost blind. She was buried in Grottaferrata, in the tomb where Professor Venerando Correnti, the anthropologist who examined the bones that Margherita Guarducci recognized as those of Pietro, also rests.

It was she who gave to history and to the Church the most precious of gifts. However, she was treated condescendingly because of the enviousness and pettiness of a certain curialism that existed during that time.  In addition, unfortunately, perhaps she was found to be intolerable by one of her  contemporary scholars for having achieved such results, or as a consequence of her revealing anomalies and a lack of scientific rigor in the conduct of those who had carried out the excavations between 1940-1949 under the Vatican Basilica, (in which writers of the “Civiltà Cattolica” were also complicit). Following the death of St Paul VI, Guarducci was even denied entry into the subterranean area. Despite the attestations and the esteem to which she was held by the popes, it was not until the nineties that acknowledgment of her research was included in the Vatican necropolis guides: Pietro fondamento della Chiesa. Itinerario nei sotterranei della Basilica vaticana [Peter the foundation of the Church. An itinerary in the basement of the Vatican Basilica] - the guide written by a scholar and published for visitors with the grateful words of Paul VI “for the outcome of such a significant archaeological event” – which until then had been emitted. Therefore,  I understood how true Cardinal Josef Ratzinger’s comment on the whole affair was: “Unglaublich, incredible”. The first exhibition of the relics of Peter contained in the reliquary desired by Pope Francis and which opened on 24 November 2013, was providential.The name of Margherita Guarducci can only remain next to the “surviving relics” of the first Pope. It is to her competence and tenacity that we owe the discovery of the exact location where the mortal remains of the Fisherman of Galilee had rested for centuries and the recognition of their authenticity. The only ones, at least so far, in all the West and the East with certainly that can be attested to an apostle of Christ. And the whole Church remains indebted to her for this.

by Stefania Falasca