St. Peter's Bones

Feb. 29 2000 3:30 AM

St. Peter's Bones

A couple of days after we settled into our new digs, I called Christopher Nalty. Christopher is an old family friend from New Orleans who is studying in Rome to become a priest. "Old family friend" in New Orleans is a bit like "European correspondent" for the New York Times Magazine. I didn't actually know Christopher, or anyone in his family, though I knew the Nalty name, and also that it was inevitable that someone in his family had crossed paths with someone in my family. When they encounter each other in the wider world, people from New Orleans always at least pretend to know each other.

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Through a mutual friend, I knew that Christopher had graduated from Georgetown Law School and had shown legal promise at a prominent law firm in New Orleans, where he worked with a lot of other mutual friends. He was also, rumor has it, something of a ladies' man. Then, in his early 30s, he chucked in his career and gave up his women for the church. This struck me as the act of a madman. I was curious to know him.

We meet him outside St. Peter's, where Christopher serves as a tour guide when he isn't attending lectures. He seems less like a priest than a New Orleans lawyer. He says that like a lot of American priests, he arrived in Rome four years ago knowing not a word of Italian. All his religious instruction has been in Italian. "For two years I felt like a dog watching television," he says.

A few minutes later, several of Christopher's priest pals turn up for the tour. Like Christopher, they are built less like priests than like linemen and saunter in a distinctly worldly fashion. Over their robes they wear bomber jackets. They greet Christopher more in the spirit of a frat brother, or a teammate, than a fellow man of the cloth. It is all so overtly masculine that it can't be ignored. I wonder whether the tone and style of priests may be changing in response to the sexual scandals in the church. To deflect the worst suspicions of others, the American priest must signal, right up front, that he is Not Gay. The Muscular Christian may be making a comeback. Just so long as he doesn't spend too much time in the gym!

When the priests have finished joshing and mugging about with each other, the tour begins. Buried beneath St. Peter's is an old Roman graveyard. For the past 50 years or so various popes have encouraged its excavation. The place is as cold and damp as an old champagne cellar, and aside from the odd archeologist, we have it to ourselves.

In the past four years, Christopher has made himself not only holy but also knowledgeable. He is now the resident expert on St. Peter's subterranean world. In digging up many old Roman sarcophagi and wall paintings, he explains, archaeologists found St. Peter's tomb, and perhaps even his bones. At least that is what Christopher believes, and he explains in great detail why he believes it. Of course, there is no point in arguing about it. The pope has proclaimed that the bones found are St. Peter's bones, and scientific testing has lent some credence to his assertion (they've been proved to belong to an older man; the bones of the feet are missing, as they would be from a man crucified upside down, as Peter is said to have been,  etc.). It's funny the way the church uses science. It doesn't seem to bother them that in using scientific evidence when it happens to buttress a claim, they inadvertently lend credence the much more persuasive scientific evidence that undermines the whole shebang. Half an hour into the tour it is clear that the old Roman walls and the old Roman wall paintings are clearly beside the point. The point is Peter's bones. The tour is meant to end in the room beside the room that contains them. The door between the rooms is, however, ajar. Christopher glances this way and that, and then tells us that the room that holds the bones believed to belong to St. Peter, normally locked tight, has been mistakenly left open. It's strictly against the rules to go in. On the other hand, this opportunity is not likely to recur.

We can see him going back and forth in his mind whether to risk it. In the end, the temptation proves too great. After a brief, passionate lecture, in which Christopher lays out in even more detail the case that these are in fact the bones of St. Peter, we all dash in like cat burglars, catch a glimpse of a dark hole in which St. Peter's bones are presumed to rest, say a quick prayer, and then dash out again.

All we actually see is a dark hole. But the experience clearly means a lot to Christopher. Emerging, he has tears in his eyes. For this and no other reason, it also means a lot to us.

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