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Rookie Priest: Two Italian burial sites offer lessons in sacrifice

Eleventh in a series

Sunday, May 27, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published May 30, 2001) The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial is located in the town of Nettuno, near Anzio. A story in Sunday's editions following the career of rookie priest the Rev. Jim Farnan said the cemetery was located in Anzio.

ROME -- It would have been easy to overlook the small, white square set in the cobblestones outside a side entrance to St. Peter's Basilica, where the Rev. Jim Farnan waited to lead his tour.

To Farnan, that square is sacred, because it probably lies within yards of where the apostle Peter died. It marks the original site of the Egyptian obelisk that is now in St. Peter's Square. The obelisk was once the centerpiece of Nero's circus, where thousands of Christians were martyred.

Farnan was about to lead four American tourists into the Scavi, the archaeological excavations beneath St. Peter's Basilica, to the humble grave of a fisherman.

The Rev. Jim Farnan is in Rome serving as a Scavi tour guide for the third year, bringing visitors to the archaeological excavations beneath St. Peter's Basilica, including St. Peter's grave. Above, he gives directions to a tourist. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Next: Rookie year behind him, a priest visits home as past and future converge

"We will walk the same streets that the pilgrims did in the first century, to the tomb of the chief apostle, the Galilean fisherman, St. Peter," he told his visitors

"He dedicated his life to preaching the faith that we share. We will take moments throughout the pilgrimage to pray."

Farnan, 36, who was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in June, has served for three years as a Scavi tour guide in the ancient Roman cemetery beneath St. Peter's Basilica. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is following Farnan's first year of ministry, which took him back to Rome to finish his degree.

His Scavi tours began as a required student ministry, but continued for two more years out of love. Farnan might have chosen work in a hospital or soup kitchen, but he wanted to lead pilgrims to Peter's grave because his own decision to give up his sales career for the priesthood was inspired by Peter's decision to leave his fishing boat to follow Jesus. To qualify as a guide, he spent a year studying the history and archaeology of Vatican Hill.

Farnan opened his Bible and read the story of Jesus' call to Peter.

"Why are you here? Why have you come to Rome?" Farnan asked his tour group.

"Was it to experience and see what this Galilean fisherman saw? Everything here goes back to that moment when he had his encounter with Christ. He followed him ultimately to this spot."

Vatican Hill was then home to a necropolis -- a city of the dead -- where wealthy Romans built elaborate mausoleums. The mad Emperor Nero built his circus nearby.

In July 64, while Nero vacationed at Anzio, a fire destroyed most of Rome. Refugees fled across the Tiber River to Vatican Hill. Nero blamed the fire on Christians, who were already considered cannibals because they claimed to eat flesh and drink blood. According to the pagan historian Tacitus, Nero entertained the refugees by having Christians torn to death by dogs, crucified and burned alive.

Peter's crucifixion was likely reserved for Oct. 13, 64, the 10th anniversary of Nero's reign. Tradition holds that Peter declared himself unworthy to die as Jesus did, and was crucified upside down.

"Probably one of the last things he laid eyes on in this world was the obelisk," Farnan said.

"Christians took down his body, probably secretly, and put in the nearest place they could take it -- a pauper's site without Christian markings in the nearby necropolis."

The Rev. Jim Farnan is in Rome serving as a Scavi tour guide for the third year, bringing visitors to the archaeological excavations beneath St. Peter's Basilica, including St. Peter's grave. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Tradition held that the altar of St. Peter's stood over his grave. But until workers digging a grave for Pope Pius XI in 1939 struck an ancient wall, the basis of that belief was lost in the mists of time.

The city of the dead into which Farnan's group descended is better preserved than Pompeii. Vivid frescoes of pagan deities cover the walls. The epitaph for a senator's wife praises her chastity and the beauty of her soul.

The atmosphere is dank, dark and humid. Walking the narrow paths, it is easy to imagine how early Christians felt as they crept along the same paths by night to pay their secret respects at Peter's grave.

By 1968, scholars had concluded that for 100 years after his death, Peter's body lay in a pauper's grave, covered with tiles. As erosion threatened the site, Christians built a protective brick wall. Around 150, they erected a modest monument above the walled-in grave. Through a hole in its floor they could see and touch the original pauper's grave.

When the monument cracked, a support wall was added. That wall was covered with centuries of graffiti, most of it expressing love for Peter. At some point, Peter's bones were removed from the pauper's grave and placed in a marble box. It was sealed into a secret niche in the support wall. Dirt on the bones in the box matched the soil in the pauper's grave. A stone found with them bore the Latinized Greek words PETR(OC) ENI, or "Peter within."

They were the bones of a sturdy man age 60 to 80. His feet were missing, having been broken off at the ankles. That would make sense if the body was quickly chopped free as it hung upside down.

The monument above the pauper's grave is framed by supports for Bernini's famous baldachino. Unlike the lavish tombs around it, Peter's was small and plain.

Farnan brought his visitors as close as possible to the grave. He asked everyone to reflect on what they most wanted to ask of God.

Opening his Bible, he read the passage in which Simon identifies Jesus as the Messiah and the son of God. Jesus then renames him "Peter," which means "Rock."

"On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven," he read, quoting Jesus' words in Matthew 16:18-19.

He then led his group in prayer.

From the dark of the underground graveyard and the simplicity of Peter's tomb, they emerged into the gilded splendor of the crypt where modern popes are buried. From uneven earthen paths, they stepped onto white marble. The Chapel of St. Clement, the closest point to Peter's grave, has a ceiling covered in gold.

What, Farnan was asked, would the man in the pauper's grave make of this priceless edifice?

St. Peter's, Farnan replied, represents the love of generations of Christians, especially artists.

"Whatever gifts people have, they express their love by using those to bring God greater glory. What do you do when someone gives you gold, as the Spanish government did? Do you put it in a vault or do you give it to an artist to raise people's minds to God? That is what the artists did in the Clementine chapel. They made you look up."

Farnan read a Gospel passage in which Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. In the nuances of the Greek text, Peter replies that he loves him, but not enough to die for him.

That Peter was ultimately martyred in Rome, shows that a man whose love for Christ was once weak later dedicated himself to caring for Jesus' followers and, finally, gave his life for him.

"Jesus sent him to that place -- to this place where we are standing -- where he could be completely self-giving in his love," Farnan said.

As he handed out holy cards of St. Peter, Farnan was approached by a young Italian who said he knew little of the faith.

"I know we are supposed to believe, even if we don't understand. But what do I do when I have questions?" he asked Farnan.

"You're supposed to ask questions," Farnan replied, explaining that God did not expect faith to be blind. He recommended two books.

"Your faith is a journey. Continue traveling," he told the young man.

Those on Farnan's tour said they had expected a lecture on archaeology but had been given a spiritual experience.

"This made me think of how much people did for the faith back then, as opposed to now. It made me want to go to church," said Elizabeth Schonberg, 30, a lapsed Catholic from New Orleans.

"What I'll remember was how all the Christians had to be so secretive, and how much St. Peter meant to them. You could tell that the whole story moved Father Jim, and he made it moving to me."

That week, Farnan drove to the coast to visit a cemetery of another kind. The American military cemetery at Nettuno, near Anzio, is the burial site for 7,861 of 22,000 Allied soldiers killed between the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and the liberation of Rome in June 1944.

Today, Anzio is a resort where American seminarians have an annual beach day. But the cemetery, with its countless rows of crosses, draws them for other reasons.

For Farnan, the cemetery is both challenging and comforting.

"The first time I came here, it was like a slice of America," he said.

In fact, it was designed by a Pittsburgher, landscape architect Ralph Griswold. An American flag flies above the welcome center. The signs are in English. The caretaker is an American, who eagerly offers help in locating graves.

Even on the sunniest days, the cemetery has an aura of unbearable sadness. On an outer wall of the museum is a relief of an angel, lifting the limp and lifeless body of a young soldier into heaven. The chapel walls bear the names of 3,095 Americans missing in action.

As he walked through the cemetery, Farnan read names, ages and hometowns on the markers. Two sets of twins are among the 23 pairs of brothers buried side by side. But the crosses that move him most are the 488 that say, "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God."

"When I was in college I used to go to Daytona Beach for spring break," Farnan said.

"These guys were the same age I was. But their idea of hitting the beach was very different."

Before ordination, he came to this cemetery to grieve for the wife and children he would never have.

"When you go into a vocational analysis for the priesthood, you spend six or seven years thinking about what you are going to do. It's not like getting married, where you can elope on a weekend," he said.

"You think about what you will miss. There's a process of mourning that you go through. When you come to a place like this, it makes you realize what sacrifice means."

Farnan knelt to pray in the memorial chapel. As he walked back, his footsteps on the crushed white stone path were the only sound in the cemetery. Only once, last Memorial Day, did he encounter other visitors, and they were few. On this day, he saw no one but caretakers. The last generation of those who knew the boys buried here is dying.

"It's nice that our country remembers its dead like this. But I wonder how many years will go by before this becomes just a line on a budget?" he said.

He wondered if the world could forget the sacrifice of these men and women.

"Are there Catholics back home who don't know what happened to Christians in the circus of Nero? I wonder how long it took to forget?"

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