The bishop of Rome can’t be the “successor to Peter,” since Peter was never in Rome. The Bible nowhere says he went there, and Paul, who did go there, never mentions Peter being in Rome. If Peter were the “pope,” he certainly would have mentioned it.
Trying to prove St. Peter did not go to Rome and die there is a lot like trying to prove that St. Matthew didn’t write the Gospel of Matthew. True, the Bible doesn’t explicitly say he went to Rome, but the surrounding historical evidence is more than sufficient to prove that he did.
But first, we should ask, “If St. Peter didn’t go to Rome, where did he go? Where did he die?” We’d expect to find plenty of evidence in the writings of the early Church telling us where this prominent Apostle carried out his final years of ministry, if it were some place other than Rome. But the historical record contains no hint that he ended his days anywhere but Rome. No other city except Rome ever claimed to possess the site of his martyrdom or his tomb (and early Christians were extraordinarily diligent about making and proving such claims). No other city – not even Antioch, where he resided for a time during his apostolate – claimed he ended his days among them. No Church Father or Council or any other early Church record indicates that he finished his days anywhere but in Rome.
That’s the lack of evidence side of the coin. The flip side is the mountain of evidence proving he did go to Rome. Everyone everywhere in the early Church agreed that St. Peter went to Rome, ministered there for more than two decades, and suffered martyrdom by inverted crucifixion in A.D. 65, under the persecution of Emperor Nero. Given the grave danger to the early Church from a hostile Roman government, it makes perfect sense that St. Paul would not mention St. Peter’s whereabouts in his letters. He didn’t want to draw unfriendly attention. It’s also quite possible that St. Peter had not yet arrived in Rome when St. Paul was writing. We even see St. Peter himself making what seems to be a cryptic reference to his presence in Rome when he says “The chosen one at Babylon sends you greetings, as does Mark, my son” (I Peter 5:13). “Babylon” was a commonly used code word for Rome among Christians, because its pagan decadence and opposition to Christ was reminiscent of the idolatrous wickedness associated with ancient Babylon.
But once St. Peter had been martyred, the testimonies of his sojourn in Rome with St. Paul poured forth in a flood from the early Christian writers. Perhaps the most detailed of these early accounts came from St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 200) in his apologetics work, Against Heresies. He gave a detailed account of succession of the bishops of Rome, from St. Peter down to his own day. He referred to Rome as the city “where Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel and founded the Church. “Other notable early examples were St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107), who referred to the Church at Rome as “the Church of Peter and Paul” (Letter to the Romans); St. Cyprian (d. 251), who described Rome as ‘The place of Peter” (Epistle 52); and St. Jerome (d. 420), who called Rome “the See of Peter” (Epistle 15, to Pope Damasus). Around A.D. 166, Bishop Dionysius of Corinth wrote to Pope Soter, “You have also, by your very admonition, brought together the planting that was made by Peter and Paul at Rome ….”(quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2:25).
Besides the vast amount of historical evidence showing that St. Peter went to Rome, modern archaeology has cinched the case even tighter by a definitive scientific demonstration that his bones (studies showed that they are of a powerfully built elderly man who died of crucifixion) are interred directly beneath the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, several levels down, where the original first century Vatican hill sloped away toward the Tiber River, This was just outside the walls of what was once Nero’s Circus – precisely where all the early Christian and even non-Christian records say St. Peter was crucified and buried.
By Patrick Madrid (Envoy Magazine, March/April 1998, p.27)