The Pope stayed kneeling a long time in silent prayer before the tomb of Blessed John Paul II in the Saint Sebastian Chapel, and he also paused briefly in recollection before the tombs of Blessed John XXIII and Saint Pius X.
On Monday, the Holy Father Francis made a private visit to the Vatican necropolis, located beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica, and he paused to pray before the tomb of Saint Peter.
The Pope was accompanied then as well by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, among others.
Francis is the first Pope to go down to the recent excavations of the Vatican necropolis. He walked through the whole central path of the necropolis, which is under the Basilica and the Vatican Grottoes, listening to the explanations of Cardinal Comastri and Doctor Pietro Zander, one of those in charge of the site. He then approached the tomb of Saint Peter, exactly under the main altar and cupola of the Basilica.
In the Clementine Chapel, the closest place to the tomb of the first Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis paused in silent prayer.
The visit ended in the Vatican Grottoes, where he paid homage at the tombs of Popes of the past century: Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul I.
Leaving the Grottoes, the Pontiff greeted the staff that was present and then walked back to St. Martha’s, just as earlier he had walked to the entrance of the excavation on the left side of the Basilica. The visit began at 5:00 pm and ended at 5:45 pm.
Cardinal Comastri shared this reflection with L'Osservatore Romano: Pope Francis had a great desire: to visit the Vatican Necropolis. He mentioned it a little before Easter. He especially wished to see the tomb of the Apostle Peter, the place in which the Christians of Rome laid the crucified body of the first Pope to rest after his martyrdom in the Circus of Nero in the year 67 after Christ.
The Pope thus wished to go to the origin of the Roman Pontificate, a succession into which Providence today has ordained to add his person.
Monday afternoon, 1 April, we had the joy and the honour of accompanying Pope Francis along this unique path. From the level of the Vatican Grottos we descended to the necropolis: a jump back 1,800 years. Up until 1939-40, this site was buried because the architects working for Constantine, in 320, in order to fashion a level floor of the first basilica, filled in the sloping land of the Vatican Hill. Today, after excavations, everything has prodigiously re-emerged.
His first stop was before the Egyptian Mausoleum (which dates back to the 2nd century). In this mausoleum amid many pagan tombs there is also a Christian tomb. Christianity in fact, like yeast, was penetrating the pagan world. The Pope exclaimed in admiration: “It's like this today, too!”.
We then made a second stop before the funerary stele of a man called Istatilio. He was certainly Christian: on his grave is the monogram xp of Christ. On the stele is inscribed: “He was at peace with everyone and never caused strife”. The Pope, after reading the phrase, looked at us and said: “that is a beautiful programme of life”. When we had reached at the place of the tomb of the Apostle Peter I saw the Holy Father transfixed, visibly moved, before the white wall covered with graffiti, testimonies to us even today of devotion to the Apostle Peter.
Climbing back up the stairs and having reached the Clementine Chapel, Pope Francis became absorbed in prayer and repeated with a loud voice the three professions of Peter: “Lord, You are the Christ, Son of the Living God”; “Lord, to whom do we go? You have the words of eternal life”; “Lord, You know all things! You know that I love you!”. At that moment, we had the distinct impression that the life of Peter rose out of centuries past and became present and living in the current Successor of the Apostle Peter.
With me were: Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, delegate of the Fabric of St Peter's, Mons. Alfred Xuereb and those responsible for the necropolis, Pietro Zander and Mario Bosco. When we took our leave of the Holy Father we thought that he returned to his residence comforted by the echo of Jesus' words: “You are Peter, the rock on whom I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.