The key to understanding the Vatican can be found in the mystery of the keys. This is no mere play on words. It has to do with the mandate given Peter by Christ to guide the Church throughout all history. God entrusted Peter with the keys to Heaven. We must examine closely the providential design which, around the year 42 A.D., brought the prince of apostles to Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. Here, sometime between 64-67 A.D., he was martyred in Nero’s Circus, at the foot of the Vatican Hill, and entombed in a nearby burial ground. His body was placed in the nude earth, barely covered with a few scattered bricks.
In order to understand the mystery of the Vatican, we must begin with this moment of absolute humility: the plain burial of an executed man at the height of anti-Christian persecution. A very short distance separated the place where Peter professed his Faith through martyrdom from the spot where he was buried. Just as it was in the case of Christ, who died on Calvary and whose body was entombed in a nearby cemetery belonging to Joseph of Arimathea.
Peter’s tomb is our point of reference within the Vatican. It is at the crux of everything, the reason for all that was subsequently built. This magnificent city would not exist; the greatest temple in all Christendom would not have risen here, were it not the burial place of a fisherman from Galilee who bore witness to Christ’s Resurrection and whose Faith was so strong that he too accepted crucifixion. He was a poor Jew, rejected by the authorities among his own people, possessing neither Roman citizenship nor a proper use of Latin. The burial of this man was an event that transformed and ultimately exalted Vatican Hill and its necropolis. The city that we observe today was born within the fortification meant to defend that tomb and the church that rose above it.
We can strain our fantasy in an effort to imagine how that place might have appeared two thousand years ago. It was an uninhabitable area to be sure, marshy and filled with grass snakes. The land was infertile and the wine produced there of an inferior quality. In short, a place to avoid, not least because the boggy strip along the right bank of the Tiber was where malaria proliferated. Later the area would be improved with the addition of several grand villas. And when the Roman Empire was established, a circus was constructed in the flat area next to the river, between the Vatican and Janiculum Hills. At the hub of this circus, the Emperor Caligula (37-41 A.D.) placed an Egyptian obelisk, most likely brought on a barge from Alexandria.
During the persecutions between 64-67, the apostle Peter, leader of Rome’s Christian community, was martyred in that circus together with a number of his brethren. Their burial at the foot of Vatican Hill was to be the premise for the most extraordinary transformation any site has undergone from ancient times to today. The necropolis is located several meters below the surface of the present-day basilica. We can’t be sure, but originally it might have extended from Nero’s bridge for several miles along the Via Cornelia.