Around 442, Pope Leo the Great (440-461) devised an extraordinary money-making scheme that was destined to have profound repercussions upon the development of Christianity for centuries to come. The record of this enterprising connivance is found in both the extant writings of Pope Leo and Salvianus (d. 456), a distinguished historian of Marseilles who wrote an open letter to the Church of Rome that now forms part of a book called, ‘On God’s Government’.¹ Salvianus’s writings are numerous, and his frank reference to the ‘turpitude of morals’ of the priesthood against their followers continues to embarrass the Vatican to this day.
How to make a clergyman squirm
Salvianus made the now-famous comment that ‘two priests could not meet in Rome without bursting into laugher’, a reference to the gullibility of the people who believed what the developing priesthood was expounding about the Gospel story of Jesus Christ. Salvianus revealed that Pope Leo the Great ‘conceived a shocking invention’ when he ordered the construction of a stone enclosure in a cemetery that, more than 1000 years later (1506), became the site for the commencement of the building of the largest and most splendid structure in Christendom, St. Peter’s Basilica. The comments of Salvianus are supported in one of Pope’s Leo’s 173 own letters that still exist today, and this is what he said:
‘To this primitive worthy [St. Peter] we owe a debt of gratitude … let us feign that his holy carcass was transported from a monastery near Cologne lest the devil come to seize his soul … it would please the Almighty if his body was seen to rest in this city, the body that suffered such exquisite torments. Who then, after these centuries, is able to attest any different to the fact of an old skeleton, for it is a matter of faith that it is really that of St. Peter laid to rest in the Holy City, and that faith will nourish the confidence of the rabble’.
(‘On God’s Government’, Vol., iii, 9, Vol., 53 of the Migne Collection; expanded upon in ‘Campbell’s Lecture on Ecclesiastical History’, and Isaac Taylor’s ‘Ancient Christianity’)
Workmen covered the crude structure with timber planks and ‘town-criers in bright attire’ were dispatched to spread the news among the populous that the burial place of the Turn-key of Heaven, St. Peter, had been found in the Eternal City. In reality, the bones were those of a common thief and they became honoured as St. Peter himself. Pope Leo celebrated the ‘discovery’ by naming the ‘tomb’, ‘Memoria’ ² and he renamed Rome, the ‘Pardon of Peter’ by which it was known for centuries (ibid, p. 225).
Blatant priesthood embezzlement
With Pope Leo’s ploy of creating a tomb for St. Peter in Rome, a cult developed that demanded that believer’s of the Christian story journey to Rome and offer prayers to Peter at his fabricated resting place. Beginning with the English and the Scots, pilgrims from deeply naïve countries were cajoled to travel to Rome, and the ‘tomb discovery’ scheme provided the Church with a tremendous source of revenue. The subjects of the popes were the most degraded and debased people in Europe, ignorant, superstitious and semi-civilized, ‘squalid beggars pilfering their beseeched offerings’ ³, and in this aspect, for centuries the papacy had an open field.
The creation of a second tomb
Thus, the tradition of pilgrimages to Rome was established 4, and in addition to encouraging the belief that Pope St. Peter’s tomb was there, bishops cultivated the myth with undiminished eagerness. This they did, not as upholders of a devout legend, but as skillful promoters of a growing cult that had concrete and far-reaching objectives. Its magnification brought it immense authority, and, with it, wealth. The populous submitted for centuries to the tyrannical usurpations of the haughty and abandoned prelates of Rome and so successful was the fraud of St. Peter’s tomb that the Holy Mother Church then created an ‘adjoining tomb for the great apostle’, St. Paul (‘The Bertinian Annals’, c. 1020).
‘Bring money, bring money’
That is how pilgrimages to Rome were initiated, later supported mainly and curiously by Anglo-Saxons. Popes of the time actively promoted pilgrimages to the ‘tomb’, and from the very beginning, they showed a special predilection for the richest and most powerful personages of the times; that is, individuals who could give them valuable presents, land and power. To quote a typical example, Pope Leo the Great wrote in one of his 173 extant letters how, after ‘Peter had spoken’ to him from the tomb, Emperor Valentinian III (c. 419-455) and his family regularly performed devotions at the tomb, ‘such practices yielding a useful respect for the apostle’s successors’ to whom they offered costly presents and the tenure of land’ (‘Leo’s Tome’; a doctrinal letter).
‘Speaking’ to St. Peter
The Church hierarchy, far from discouraging the dishonest practice, gave its approval. Witness, for example, the later words of St. Gregory of Tours (538-594), who, in his ‘De Gloria Martyrum’, provided a detailed description of the ceremony he devised in order for the faithful to ‘speak’ with the Prince of Apostles. The pilgrim was told to kneel down upon the tomb and open a wooden trap door. Then, he inserted his head down into the hole, after which, still remaining in that posture, revealed in a loud voice the object of his visit to the saint. Offerings of money were then thrown into the tomb, followed by veneration and obeisance that were offered to St. Peter’s successor, the pope of the day. The religious and even political results of this practice upon ignorant nations like the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks who imitated them, can easily be imagined.
The ‘bones of St. Peter’ dumped in the Tiber
Then, in the Ninth Century and during the pontificate of Pope Sergius II (d. 847), the Saracens sacked Rome. They stormed and pillaged the ports of Ostia and Portus, sailed up the Tiber, and then invaded Rome. Soldiers smashed open the ‘tomb’ and threw ‘the bones of St. Peter’5 into the Tiber. Later, another and larger tomb was built, and for the first time, enclosed by walls and roofed over. Human remains were dug up from nearby graves, and presented to the rabble as those of both ‘Pope St. Peter’ and St. Paul. Sometime later, a timber wall was built beside the tomb on which was drawn a graffiti-like sketch of St. Peter in charcoal and ochre outlines. The ignorant ‘bowed themselves down and revered the apostle as God on earth’ (‘Annalibus Loiseliannus’) at whose fanciful representation one can only wonder.
¹ ‘On God’s Government’, Vol., iii, 9, Vol., 53 of the Migne Collection
² ‘Secrets of the Christian Fathers’, Bishop J. W. Sergerus, 1685, reprint 1897, p. 169
³ ‘Chronica’, Victor of Tunnunum (c. 589), cited by Dr. Mills, Prolegom to R.V., p. 93
4 ‘Pilgrimage to Rome’, Rev. Seymour, 1832
5 ‘The Annals of Beneventum’, written by monks of Italy; c. 1200-1400, held in the ‘Monumenta Germaniae’ (v)