VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis on Monday took an emotional, close-up look at the tomb of Peter, the church's first pontiff, buried beneath St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican said.
By doing so, Francis became the first pontiff to visit the necropolis, where pagans and early Christians were buried, since extensive archaeological excavations were conducted at the ancient site decades ago, the Vatican said.
The 45-minute "visit of devotion to the tomb of St. Peter" was private, the Vatican said, but it later released a video of it.
The basilica was built over the location where early Christians would gather in secret, at a time of persecution in ancient Rome, to pray at an unmarked tomb believed to be that of Peter, the apostle Jesus chose to lead his church.
The Vatican first said Francis would pray at Peter's tomb, but later said he prayed instead in the basilica.
The new pope "paused in silent prayer, in profound and emotional meditation" in the Clementine Chapel in the vast basilica that is "the closest place (in the basilica) to the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles," it said.
During a tour of the necropolis conducted by its director and an Italian cardinal, the pope "climbed up a bit, got closer to the place where the tomb of St. Peter lies, exactly under the central altar and the dome of the basilica," the Vatican said.
Francis walked down the entire main street of the ancient city of the dead, the statement said. The streets of the necropolis are similar to those of ancient Rome, only they are flanked by tombs instead of shops and apartments.
The Vatican said Francis walked to the necropolis entrance from the hotel on the Vatican grounds where he lives, took the tour and later - after paying homage at the tombs of several popes in another underground level known as the grottoes, including Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul I - strolled back to his residence.
The underground excursion was a sharp departure from how popes in past years often spent the day after Easter, known in Italy as "little Easter." Those pontiffs would head to Castel Gandolfo, the Vatican palace in the Alban Hills, a short drive from Rome.
But that oasis of sprawling gardens and strolling paths in the quaint hill town is occupied by the predecessor of Francis, Benedict XVI, who spent the last hours of his papacy there before becoming the first pope in 600 years to retire. Benedict is staying in Castel Gandolfo until a monastery at the Vatican in Rome can be readied for him.
Many Italians spend "little Easter" by having a picnic in the countryside or in city parks, and Francis told Romans and tourists who gathered in St. Peter's Square at noon Monday to "have a good lunch." Francis said he was praying that Easter would inspire the faithful so that "hatred gives way to love, lies to truth," and that it would especially comfort those in "most need of trust and hope."