THE BONES OF THE FISHERMAN (CONT’D)
This column is a follow-up to my July 3 column entitled, “THOSE 9 BONE FRAGMENTS THAT POPE MONTINI WANTED BY HIS SIDE,” a reference to the bone fragments of St. Peter, the first Pope, that have been in a reliquary in the papal chapel in the Apostolic Palace since Paul VI announced on June 26, 1968, “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.” (https://joansrome.wordpress.com/2019/07/03/)
In that column, I wrote that in the early years I was working at the Vatican, I had been told by a monsignor working in the Roman Curia and knowledgeable about archives, that those bone fragments were the only remains of our first Pope. I wrote that, if true, I could not believe the Holy Father had given them away!
Those were not, as I have since happily discovered, the only bone fragments of St. Peter. Others are in the scavi, the excavations decades ago that led to the discovery of Peter’s tomb and bones. What was so strange for me was that I have visited the scavi a number of times (though not in the past 10 or more years) and never remember hearing a guide telling us the saint’s bones were in a reliquary/container near his tomb. How could you forget something like that!
On July 6, Vatican news published an interview in Italian with Prof. Pietro Zander head of the Vatican necropolis office (the scavi), and head of the conservation and restoration of the artistic heritage of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the Vatican office charged with anything and everything that has to do with St. Peter’s Basilica such as building, repairing, restoring, administering, etc.
“On this box,” said Zander, referring to the reliquary that Francis gave to the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, “there is an inscription that states that it is part of the bones that were considered to have belonged to San Peter. The relics donated by the Holy Father, therefore, come from a more conspicuous group of bones that are still preserved in the compartment of the so-called ‘Muro G’ (Wall G), the graffiti wall that is located under the papal altar of the Vatican Basilica. Precisely in that place, June 26, 1968, Paul VI wanted to place as many as 19 transparent cases with bone fragments that belonged to the first Pope. Only nine fragments were then removed from this group which were taken to the private chapel of the papal apartment of the Apostolic Palace, to be available for the intentions and the will of the Holy Father.” (JFL photo)
It goes without saying that I hope to visit the scavi again and learn more about the remaining bone fragments.
I also wrote on July 3: “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?!”
In the days since June 29, I have read myriad news reports and opinion pieces on the papal gift to the Orthodox Church. Tons of questions cropped up in those reports and in many conversations with people as consternated as I was about the gift (when I thought they were the only bones of Peter): Did the Pope have the right to do this (seems he did, according to Canon 1190)? Why did he not give several of the fragments now in the scavi to Bartholomew instead? Will Orthodox patriarchs other than Bartholomew I of Constantinople want to receive bone fragments? Will legitimate requests for relics arrive from Catholics?
Many mourned the idea that no Pope in the future can pray before these relics in the papal chapel as did Paul VI, probably John Paul I, for sure John Paul II and Benedict XVI. After all, as Pope, they were all Successors of Peter, Prince of the Apostles.
Read on to hear what Pope Francis told the Orthodox delegation about that papal chapel.
Lifesitenews reported on the June 29 gift of 9 bone fragments of St. Peter from Pope Francis to the Orthodox Church and quoted remarks by Archbishop Job of Telmessos, who headed the official delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to the June 29 ceremony in St. Peter’s (https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pope-francis-gives-away-relics-of-st-peter).
Those remarks by the Orthodox archbishop were originally reported on the following website under the: ECUMENICAL PATRIARCHATE PERMANENT DELEGATION TO THE WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES https://www.ecupatria.org/2019/07/01/pope-francis-of-rome-gave-relics-of-saint-peter-to-the-church-of-constantinople/
Here is the essential part of that account:
“On 29 June, 2019, after the Papal Mass in the Basilica of St. Peter, His Holiness Pope Francis invited him (Job) to descend to the tomb of St. Peter under the main altar. They prayed together and the Pope then told him that he had ‘a gift for the Church of Constantinople’, not indicating what he intended, and invited him to accompany him to the Apostolic Palace. In the private chapel of the popes, he took the reliquary into his hands and handed it to Archbishop Job.
“When we entered the chapel,” said Archbishop Job, “Pope Francis explained to me that Pope Paul VI wanted to keep a part of the relics of St. Peter from the Vatican Basilica in his private chapel. Further, Pope Francis told him that during the prayer the previous evening he had this thought: ‘I no longer live in the Apostolic Palace, I never use this chapel, I never serve the Holy Mass here, and we have St. Peter’s relics in the basilica itself, so it will be better if they will be kept in Constantinople. This is my gift to the Church of Constantinople. Please take this reliquary and give it to my brother Patriarch Bartholomew. This gift is not from me, it is a gift from God’.”
“Archbishop Job admitted that this decision of Pope Francis was a surprise to everyone: ‘This is an extraordinary and unexpected event that we did not expect. The relics of the Holy Apostle Peter were always kept in Rome where they were the purpose of pilgrimages. The Orthodox Church has never asked for them since they never belonged to the Church of Constantinople. This time, we do not speak of a return of relics to their original place. This time, the relics are being presented as a gift. This prophetic gesture is another huge step on the path to concrete unity,’ stressed Archbishop Job of Telmessos.”
I have to be honest. I was stunned, to say the least, by the Pope’s words about the papal chapel in the Apostolic Palace, as if it too was a relic that could be discarded.
I’ve been to papal Masses in that chapel when St. John Paul celebrated the Eucharist. It is small, intimate, beautiful and conducive to being recollected and prayerful.
As I wrote for the book, “When Women Pray”: “On several occasions I was blessed to be at Mass in John Paul’s private chapel and I can only say I will not live long enough to ever again encounter a person who prayed like John Paul did. He was always at prayer when we entered the chapel and you felt instantly that he was unaware of our presence because he was totally aware of another Presence. I sensed something mystical as I watched him pray. I could almost hear the conversation he was having with God or, quite likely, his Blessed Mother whom he loved so much! Those images were seared into my soul!”
I only wish I’d known then about the reliquary!