As you may have seen on my Twitter account and Facebook page today, I wrote that I had asked Holy See Press Office interim director Alessandro Gisotti if the bone fragments of St. Peter that the Pope gave unexpectedly to the Orthodox Church on June 29, feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles are, as I have been told, the ONLY relics we have of Peter, our first Pope. If not, I asked, what are the other relics and where are they? If yes, then I am horrified and speechless!
Alessandro got back to me almost immediately and said he was making inquiries. Not long after that, he sent me a link to a June 30 story that Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication since December 2018 and a close friend of Pope Francis’ for many years, wrote for the Italian online edition of vaticannews.va.
Here is an English translation of Tornielli’s article (and I comment on this matter at the end):
THOSE 9 BONE FRAGMENTS THAT POPE MONTINI WANTED BY HIS SIDE
The gift that Pope Francis, successor of the Apostle Peter, wanted to make without any warning to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, successor of the Apostle Andrew, is inextricably linked to the memory of St. Paul VI. It was he, Paul, who, on the 26th of June 1968, two days before solemnly concluding the Year of Faith, announced with surprise the discovery of the relics attributed to Peter during the Wednesday general audience.
It was Pius XII, in June 1939 who, immediately after his election, ordered the beginning of the excavations under the basilica of St. Peter* entrusting their direction to Monsignor Ludwig Kaas. The research had lasted ten years and led to the discovery of the apostle’s burial, but not of his relics. In his Christmas radio message of 1950, Pope Pacelli (Pius XII) was able to announce with joy and emotion: “Has the tomb of Saint Peter been truly found? To this question the final conclusion of the works and studies responds with a very clear ‘yes’.” * (JFL: the excavations were ordered by Pius XII to create the foundation for the tomb of his predecessor, Pius XI)
Thus, it appeared to correspond to the truth what was affirmed during the pontificate of Pope Zephyrinus (199-217) by the Roman priest Gaius who, addressing Proclus, a follower of the Montanist heresy, had written: “if you want to come to the Vatican, on the Via Ostiense, you will be able to see the trophies [that is, the tombs] of those … who founded this Church,” namely Peter and Paul.
In 1952 the excavation work was resumed with the additional help of archaeologist Margherita Guarducci. Under the papal altar of the basilica a funerary shrine had been found leaning against a contemporary wall, dating to about the year 150, called the “red wall” for its color and and for the particularly valuable and numerous superimposed graffiti that the scholar had decifered. All contain invocations to Peter, to which the names of Christ and Mary are sometimes joined. One of these graffiti is fundamental, dating back to the year 160, in which we read in Greek the words Petros enì, “Pietro is here.” This annotation therefore seems to indicate the precise place of the apostle’s burial.
In an area of the Vatican Grottoes, Professor Guarducci had found in a box the bones that had been collected in the niche identified as the tomb of Peter. “In 1964, I came to the certainty of identification; in 1965 I published for the first time the results achieved … the exceptional relics of Peter from a scientifically ascertained tomb and declared to be authentic by the most rigorous scientific examinations, show with absolute certainty that the church of Rome is founded really, not metaphorically, on Peter.”
The bones, after being analyzed, were found to belong to a single male person of robust build who died in old age. They were encrusted with earth and showed that they had been wrapped in a purple-colored woolen cloth woven with gold, a particularly precious burial. They represent fragments of all the bones of the body to the exclusion of even the slightest fragment of those of the feet. A significant detail, which brings to mind the circumstance of crucifixion upside down and the results caused on the body, namely the detachment of the feet, due to the prolonged exposure on the site of the torture.
That June 26, 1968, Paul VI announced: “New, very thorough and very accurate inquiries were later carried out with the result that, comforted by the judgment of skillful, prudent and competent persons, we believe the following to be positive: that even the relics of St. Peter have been identified in a convincing manner for which we give praise to those who have committed themselves to very careful study with long and great effort.”
“The research, verifications, discussions and polemics will not be exhausted with this,” continued Pope Montini. “But on our part, it seems only right to present to you and to the Church this happy announcement, obliged as we are to honor the sacred relics, supported by serious proof of their authenticity … and, in the present case, all the more solicitous and exultant we must be, when we have reason to believe that the few but sacrosanct mortal remains of the Prince of the Apostles have been traced.”
Margherita Guarducci recounted: “Paul VI was immovable, resisting any pressure, when it was a question of announcing a result of which he was perfectly convinced, that is, the identification not only of the tomb, but also of the mortal remains of the apostle Peter.” It must be said that another scholar, Jesuit Father Antonio Ferrua, who had excavated the tomb, will not agree with Guarducci’s conclusions.
Of those bones now preserved in the necropolis under St. Peter, Paul VI had nine fragments handed over to keep them in the private chapel of the papal apartment, inside a bronze box bearing this inscription: “Ex ossibus quae in Arcibasilicae Vaticanae hypogeo invents Beati Petri Apostoli esse putantur “(From the bones found in the hypogeum of the Vatican Basilica, which are believed to be of Blessed Peter the Apostle).
The reliquary containing the nine bone fragments had been displayed open on the parvis of the Vatican Basilica beside the altar at the behest of Pope Francis on the occasion of the concluding Mass of the Year of Faith, celebrated on Sunday November 24, 2013.
With this gift, the relations between Rome and Constantinople are made even firmer, recalling a Pope – Paul VI – who was the protagonist of the fundamental steps on the ecumenical journey after the historic meeting in Jerusalem with the Patriarch Athenagoras. https://www.vaticannews.va/it/vaticano/news/2019-06/le-reliquie-di-san-pietro-volute-da-san-paolo-vi.html
JFL: I do have quite a number of questions about the relics of St. Peter. If there are still bone fragments in the area where he is buried in the Vatican’s pre-Constantine necropolis, let’s hear and see more about them.
I think what breaks my heart is that the 9 bone fragments given to the Orthodox, prayerfully cared for over the years in a reliquary in the papal chapel, were whisked out of the Vatican without any pre-announcement, on what I dare call a papal whim. I am guessing Francis did pray over this surprise gesture, hoping it might cement relations with East and West, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
I would have loved – and I believe millions would have kept me company – to have seen these relics up close and personal. To pray over them, to relish the closeness to St. Peter to whom Jesus gave the Keys of the Kingdom, Peter our first Pope, our first Holy Father, a man who spent three years on earth so close to Jesus, Son of the Father!
Would it not have been a splendid gesture to have dedicated a period of several months to a public display of these relics before they were sent off to Istanbul?!
The Vatican could put the magnificent reliquary in another kind of reliquary, an ultra secure but transparent container. Allow the faithful who could make such a pilgrimage come to Rome to be near to the relics of the first Pope. Have live television coverage for those who could not undertake such a trip – or a webcam with constant images.
I was honored to be at, and also part of, the November 24, 2013 Mass to close the Year of Faith. I was one of two journalists who received the first copies of Evangelii gaudium from the Pope’s hands. I felt doubly honored to know I was in the presence, for the first time ever, of the relics of St. Peter as the Vatican displayed them near the papal altar!
Here are a few photos I took that day: