ROME, July 6, 2019 — In an unexpected and what some in Rome are viewing as an ominous gesture, Pope Francis has given away relics of St. Peter the Apostle to an Orthodox patriarch.
Following a solemn Mass on June 29, the liturgical feast of the Apostles Sts. Peter and Paul, the Pope gave a delegation representing Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople a bronze reliquary containing nine bone fragments of the first Pope.
The Orthodox Church, while having a valid priesthood and sacraments, is not in full communion with Rome, in part because it does not accept papal primacy. Although a mutual withdrawal of excommunication between Rome and Constantinople was issued at the end of the Second Vatican Council by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, Catholics do not pray for the Orthodox patriarchs in their liturgy nor do the Orthodox pray for the Pope. There is no sacramental intercommunion between the Churches.
The nine bone fragments were among the relics of St. Peter discovered during excavations of the Vatican necropolis begun by Pope Pius XI in 1939. During the excavations, archaeologists discovered a funerary monument with a casket engraved with the Greek words Petros eni, or “Peter is here.”
Following subsequent investigations, Italian archeologist Margherita Guarducci published a paper asserting that she had found the bones of St. Peter near the site identified as his tomb.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI, convinced of the authenticity of the discovery, commissioned a bronze reliquary for nine bone fragments and kept the relics in his private chapel in the Apostolic Palace, where they have remained until now. Each year, on the June 29 liturgical feast of St. Peter and Paul, the relics were displayed in the chapel for the private veneration of the Roman Pontiff.
The other relics of St. Peter still remain in a small niche in the wall under the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, in the place they were originally discovered.
The nine bone fragments have been displayed only once for public veneration, on November 24, 2013, when Pope Francis had the reliquary placed next to the altar during the closing Mass for the Year of Faith, opened by Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis removed the reliquary from the private chapel of the popes on June 29, the liturgical feast of the Apostles Sts. Peter and Paul, Patrons of Rome.
Archbishop Job of Telmessos, who headed the official delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, said that after the papal Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 29, Pope Francis invited him to accompany him to the tomb of St. Peter under the main altar.
The archbishop said that after the two prayed together at St. Peter’s tomb, the Pope told him he had a “gift for the Church of Constantinople.” The Pope invited the archbishop to accompany him to the Apostolic Palace. There, in the private chapel of the popes, Francis took the reliquary and gave it to Archbishop Job.
“When we entered the chapel,” the Orthodox archbishop said, “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.”
Pope Francis told him: “I no longer live in the Apostolic Palace, I never use this chapel, I never celebrate 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,” the Pope added, as he handed over the relics. “Please take this reliquary and give it to my brother Patriarch Bartholomew.”
“This gift is not from me, it is a gift from God,” he said.