Oddly enough I find the second in my series looking back on the “good times” of my Navy career to be another moment during my time stationed at VQ-2 in Rota, Spain. Increasing the “coincidence level” is that this moment also occurred during a trip to another part of Europe.
I have written in my travel logs on this site about how significant Naples has been to me three times now since I joined the Navy. Naples, it’s always Naples.
My first trip to Naples in 1999 was to attend a conference of Mediterranean public affairs officers. I decided to make the lateral conversion from Yeoman to Photographer’s Mate there. But another moment happened on that trip, a moment I find appropriate to recall this day after Easter Sunday.
The conference ended on Friday, Oct. 15, 1999. Our flight back to Spain didn’t leave until Sunday, Oct. 17, so we had a day to kill in Italy (an accident of scheduling by our officers, I’m sure!). Originally we planned to go to Pompeii on Saturday, Oct. 16. However, Lt. Terrence Dudley, the PAO of my squadron (VQ-2), and Lt. j.g. Davis, the PAO of Naval Station Rota, had a brainwave. On a whim we drove to Rome (it would be 17 years before I finally walked the streets of Pompeii).
I found many things that day, including the realization that Italian drivers are flat out insane. When the cops are running the red lights, you know you’re in the “Wild West” of motoring!
I also missed the single biggest opportunity for a pun in my life! As we entered Rome, Lt. Dudley was driving. Discussing the unexpected nature of even the cops running red lights, Lt. Dudley wondered aloud if he should “go with the flow” and drive like the locals.
Just as it hit me, Lt. j.g. Davis beat me to the punch and said, “Well, when in Rome…!”
I still hate him.
Our first stop was Vatican City and the imposing clergical citadel of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest Christian church building in the world. Michangelo designed the dome, and it still the largest dome in the world. Rising over 448 feet from the basilica floor, it’s tall enough inside to allow two full space shuttle stacks (orbiter, boosters, and external tank) to stand one atop the other…and still have nearly 80 feet to spare!
For a Roman Catholic like me, this basilica is pretty much the center of the spiritual world. For all Christians, it is one of the holiest shrines, ranking with Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and sites in the Orthodox Christian world. The art treasures and historical artifacts telling the Christian story that are open to the public are breathtaking.
However, it is a small grave below that soaring dome which is the focus of this story.
Tradition holds that St. Peter, yes, the St. Peter of the Gospels and Book of Acts, was martyred in Rome by being crucified upside down (he insisted on that, saying he was not worthy to be crucified in a manner identical to Jesus), and buried in a simple grave in a common in Rome. “Old” St. Peter’s basilica was started in the 4th century over the supposed spot of St. Peter’s grave. Old St. Peter’s was demolished to make way in the 15th century for construction to begin on the “new” St. Peter’s—the basilica that stands today.
Excavations in the mid-20th century unearthed the bones of a first century man in his sixties when he died (Peter was in his sixties when he was killed—get the hint?). This particular burial was accompanied by the remains of wrappings tinted purple, hinting at a burial of significant importance since purple was a royal color.
More significantly, this particular burial was located smack-dab under the great altar. This altar stands on the site of the altar of Old St. Peter’s which was reputed to have been built over the grave of St. Peter. Based on all available archaeological evidence, and buttressed by tradition, the Pope was able to declare these to be the bones of the St. Peter. The dude himself who walked with Christ, abandoned Christ, reclaimed Christ, and then headed the Early Church.
Where archaeology is concerned, there is never any way to be 100% certain of anything. Short of a tombstone saying “Here lies Peter,” this is about as good as it’s going to get, and this is pretty damned good.
So on Oct. 16, 1999, I stood there, stunned. I was looking at the burial site of St. Peter. These were the bodily remains of a man who knew Jesus personally and the closet I had ever been to Christ’s life in any physical sense. As I stood there staring one thought just started going through my head over and over, and I’m afraid it wasn’t a very profound thought: “He’s real. It’s all real. He’s real.”
I have never been the best Christian. Lord knows I have a human history that would make Peter himself blush! Additionally, being a gay man means I don’t fit into my Christian world very well, nor do I have much of a place among my Christian brethren. But this moment in 1999 still echoes through my life. It was a moment of physical reality buttressing faith and reinforcing the rational nature of choosing to remain a Christian in spite of all obstacles.
After all, if Peter was real then Jesus was real. If Jesus was real, then that tomb really was empty on Easter Sunday long ago. If that tomb really was empty, then we still have hope. Finding St. Peter helped reinforce the hope Jesus brings, and that hope has sustained me through things far worse than anything I was going through when I attempted suicide in 1998. I don’t say that to put me down; rather I say it to celebrate the things God gives us to hold onto when the eyes the of faith are blinkered.
It was all real. He was real. I don’t mean St. Peter; yes he was real and his grave is evidence. No, I mean HE was real and therefore His hope is real, and no matter what life has handed me, I’m never lost.
Nor is anyone who chooses Hope.