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The Fisherman’s Tomb:

 

The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search

 

by John O’Neill

 

–Review by Teri Hyrkas

 

Now that warm weather has arrived, are you looking for a quick read that will transport you to a distant continent? Maybe you’re looking for a modern mystery, full of adventure and danger? Or perhaps you’d prefer a non-fiction tale about a genius archeologist who withstood years of attempts to discredit her work?  The Fisherman’s Tomb: The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search (Our Sunday Visitor, 2018) by John O’Neill meets all these summer reading demands perfectly.

 

The Fisherman’s Tomb is the gripping account of the Vatican’s long search for the Apostle Peter’s grave. Author John O’Neill is a New York Times best-selling author and lawyer with many years’ interest in early Christian sites. He writes, “It was only… serendipitous coincidence that made it possible to gather and record…the facts of this extraordinary story. I felt that… this was a story that the world needed to hear.”

 

In The Fisherman’s Tomb O’Neill ask an intriguing question: Why is Rome a key city in the history of Christianity? He writes, “Ephesus, Antioch, or especially Jerusalem would seem to have a far better historical claim to be the capital of Christianity. Except for Peter.” Peter is acknowledged universally as a leader of the early Church, and to Catholics he is the first pope, but not every historian is convinced that Peter actually arrived in Rome, says O’Neill. It is primarily oral tradition that attests to Peter’s presence in the Eternal City. Although there are many who contest oral tradition, O’Neill states, “[Tradition] holds that he stayed in Rome… and was crucified upside down around the year 65…. Tradition further relates that the Roman executioners discarded Peter’s body on the ground on a nearby, vacant hill used as a dumping ground for waste, but that Christians secretly recovered and buried Peter’s body on that hill. The traditions claimed the site became almost immediately a secret place of worship for the Christians. The name of that place was Vatican Hill.

 

The history and mystery of the location of Peter’s tomb is like a labyrinthine puzzle: the twists and turns involving the grave’s whereabouts are as perplexing as they are enticing. In order to help the reader understand the puzzle, O’Neill gives an overview of the early years of the Church up to the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, 307-336 CE. O’Neill explains that it was Constantine who ended the persecutions like the one in which Peter was reportedly martyred. Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a devout Christian. It was Helena who asked Constantine to build a church, to be known as St. Peter’s Basilica, over the place believed to be the site of the Apostle Peter’s tomb – a place near the top of Vatican Hill in Rome. Constantine agreed to support the project. To build the church, however, a very large area of Vatican Hill had to be made level without desecrating any graves situated there. The problem was solved by hauling dirt in to fill and level the entire tomb strewn site. O’Neill says that the result of this engineering decision “was to create a vast, hidden, underground necropolis, which would remain frozen in time and space under the new church.” This enormous earth moving project was ultimately responsible for protecting many ancient tombs from the barbarians after the fall of Rome in 476, but it also kept the tombs from being discovered for over 1500 years, writes O’Neill.

 

Fast forward from 476 to the late 1930’s and the death of Pope Pius XI. O’Neill tells us that Pius XI had requested to be buried under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica after his death and in 1939 the Vatican decided to honor Pius XI’s request. While excavating a grave for the pope, “Digging almost immediately uncovered beneath the floor shockingly beautiful, brightly colored, and vivid, mortuary murals of cranes, flowers, dolphins, pygmies, and even Venus rising from the sea,” writes O’Neill. Soon the diggers came upon the grave of a clearly Christian young woman named Aemilia Gorgania. Because an earlier, secret, and short lived excavation under the basilica altar by the Vatican in 1626 had uncovered only pagan tombs with unsavory scenes depicted, this amazing discovery of a Christian tomb stopped all work and Pius XII was informed. What would Pius XII do? Should the digging resume? Would this search prove that Peter was not buried under the altar of the basilica?  O’Neill writes: “Pius XII made the incredibly brave decision to pursue the excavation. Unlike the excavators in 1626, Pius XII chose to pursue the truth. The search for the Apostle had begun, in the dark, early days of World War II. It would not end for nearly seventy-five years.”

 

 The Fisherman’s Tomb includes the stories of several remarkable people who worked together in a number of ways to complete the search for Apostle Peter’s resting place. One such extraordinary person was Margherita Guarducci. O’Neill writes, “The great archaeologists of fiction are invariably sophisticated men of great panache and impressive physical ability and appearance….No writer of fiction could have invented Margherita Guarducci. The brilliant, real-life archaeological genius Guarducci, whose discoveries would rival or exceed those of any fictional rivals, was a short, thin, frail looking woman, whose uninspiring presence concealed an unconquerable spirit, intense energy, and a mind of utter genius. She was truly “a diamond bit” seeking the truth. Before her long life ended, she would perform mental feats, find archaeological wonders, and fight battles at least as great as her counterparts in fiction.” Both exhilarating and exasperating, the story of Margherita Guarducci’s incomparable life adds an aspect to The Fisherman’s Tomb that is as valuable and as rare as any archeological treasure.

 

The Fisherman’s Tomb: The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search by John O’Neill is the ideal summer read. A true adventure story that is full of surprises, it keeps the reader fully engaged while it reveals a centuries-old mystery. Happy reading!

 

 

 

 

The Fisherman’s Tomb:

 

The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search

 

by John O’Neill

 

–Review by Teri Hyrkas

 

Now that warm weather has arrived, are you looking for a quick read that will transport you to a distant continent? Maybe you’re looking for a modern mystery, full of adventure and danger? Or perhaps you’d prefer a non-fiction tale about a genius archeologist who withstood years of attempts to discredit her work?  The Fisherman’s Tomb: The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search (Our Sunday Visitor, 2018) by John O’Neill meets all these summer reading demands perfectly.

 

The Fisherman’s Tomb is the gripping account of the Vatican’s long search for the Apostle Peter’s grave. Author John O’Neill is a New York Times best-selling author and lawyer with many years’ interest in early Christian sites. He writes, “It was only… serendipitous coincidence that made it possible to gather and record…the facts of this extraordinary story. I felt that… this was a story that the world needed to hear.”

 

In The Fisherman’s Tomb O’Neill ask an intriguing question: Why is Rome a key city in the history of Christianity? He writes, “Ephesus, Antioch, or especially Jerusalem would seem to have a far better historical claim to be the capital of Christianity. Except for Peter.” Peter is acknowledged universally as a leader of the early Church, and to Catholics he is the first pope, but not every historian is convinced that Peter actually arrived in Rome, says O’Neill. It is primarily oral tradition that attests to Peter’s presence in the Eternal City. Although there are many who contest oral tradition, O’Neill states, “[Tradition] holds that he stayed in Rome… and was crucified upside down around the year 65…. Tradition further relates that the Roman executioners discarded Peter’s body on the ground on a nearby, vacant hill used as a dumping ground for waste, but that Christians secretly recovered and buried Peter’s body on that hill. The traditions claimed the site became almost immediately a secret place of worship for the Christians. The name of that place was Vatican Hill.

 

The history and mystery of the location of Peter’s tomb is like a labyrinthine puzzle: the twists and turns involving the grave’s whereabouts are as perplexing as they are enticing. In order to help the reader understand the puzzle, O’Neill gives an overview of the early years of the Church up to the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, 307-336 CE. O’Neill explains that it was Constantine who ended the persecutions like the one in which Peter was reportedly martyred. Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a devout Christian. It was Helena who asked Constantine to build a church, to be known as St. Peter’s Basilica, over the place believed to be the site of the Apostle Peter’s tomb – a place near the top of Vatican Hill in Rome. Constantine agreed to support the project. To build the church, however, a very large area of Vatican Hill had to be made level without desecrating any graves situated there. The problem was solved by hauling dirt in to fill and level the entire tomb strewn site. O’Neill says that the result of this engineering decision “was to create a vast, hidden, underground necropolis, which would remain frozen in time and space under the new church.” This enormous earth moving project was ultimately responsible for protecting many ancient tombs from the barbarians after the fall of Rome in 476, but it also kept the tombs from being discovered for over 1500 years, writes O’Neill.

 

Fast forward from 476 to the late 1930’s and the death of Pope Pius XI. O’Neill tells us that Pius XI had requested to be buried under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica after his death and in 1939 the Vatican decided to honor Pius XI’s request. While excavating a grave for the pope, “Digging almost immediately uncovered beneath the floor shockingly beautiful, brightly colored, and vivid, mortuary murals of cranes, flowers, dolphins, pygmies, and even Venus rising from the sea,” writes O’Neill. Soon the diggers came upon the grave of a clearly Christian young woman named Aemilia Gorgania. Because an earlier, secret, and short lived excavation under the basilica altar by the Vatican in 1626 had uncovered only pagan tombs with unsavory scenes depicted, this amazing discovery of a Christian tomb stopped all work and Pius XII was informed. What would Pius XII do? Should the digging resume? Would this search prove that Peter was not buried under the altar of the basilica?  O’Neill writes: “Pius XII made the incredibly brave decision to pursue the excavation. Unlike the excavators in 1626, Pius XII chose to pursue the truth. The search for the Apostle had begun, in the dark, early days of World War II. It would not end for nearly seventy-five years.”

 

 The Fisherman’s Tomb includes the stories of several remarkable people who worked together in a number of ways to complete the search for Apostle Peter’s resting place. One such extraordinary person was Margherita Guarducci. O’Neill writes, “The great archaeologists of fiction are invariably sophisticated men of great panache and impressive physical ability and appearance….No writer of fiction could have invented Margherita Guarducci. The brilliant, real-life archaeological genius Guarducci, whose discoveries would rival or exceed those of any fictional rivals, was a short, thin, frail looking woman, whose uninspiring presence concealed an unconquerable spirit, intense energy, and a mind of utter genius. She was truly “a diamond bit” seeking the truth. Before her long life ended, she would perform mental feats, find archaeological wonders, and fight battles at least as great as her counterparts in fiction.” Both exhilarating and exasperating, the story of Margherita Guarducci’s incomparable life adds an aspect to The Fisherman’s Tomb that is as valuable and as rare as any archeological treasure.

 

The Fisherman’s Tomb: The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search by John O’Neill is the ideal summer read. A true adventure story that is full of surprises, it keeps the reader fully engaged while it reveals a centuries-old mystery. Happy reading!