July 05, 2019

What is the meaning of Pope Francis' gift to the Ecumenical Patriarchate?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis and Metropolitan Job of Telmessos during the audience Pope Francis gave to the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on June 28 - credit Vatican Media / ACI Group
Pope Francis and Metropolitan Job of Telmessos during the audience Pope Francis gave to the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on June 28 - credit Vatican Media / ACI Group

Pope Francis’ unexpected gift to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is part of the Pope’s effort in advancing ecumenical dialogue.

Since 1977, the Holy See and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople exchange delegations in honor of the feast of their patron saints. 

A Holy See’s delegation visits the Patriarchate’s headquarters in Istanbul on Nov. 30, St. Andrew’s feast; and an ecumenical patriarchate delegation visits the Holy See for the feast of St. Peter and Paul on June 29th. 

This year was no exception. Metropolitan Job of Telmessos led the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. They had an audience with Pope Francis on June 28, and then they participated in the Mass.

At the end of the Mass, they went together with the Pope to worship the tomb of Peter. So the Pope then gave them a reliquary with nine relics generally attributed to St. Peter.

Metropolitan Job of Telmessos, head of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, stressed with CNA on July 4 that the gift "is an extraordinary, unexpected event that we could not even hope for." 

Metropolitan Job noted that "historically, the relics of St. Peter have always been in Rome which was a destination for pilgrimage. In the past, there have been relics that have been given back by the Popes, but these were actually relics being returned to the Orthodox Church since they had been taken away from the East and brought to the West by the Crusaders." 

Metropolitan Job refers to the relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzen, that St. John Paul II gave to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2004. In that case, however, there had been a formal request by the Patriarchate and an exchange of letters that made everything official.

Pope Francis' decision was an impromptu decision.  Metropolitan Job commented: "This time, for the first time in history, the relics of St. Peter are being given and sent out of Rome to the Church of Constantinople. This is a giant step towards a more concrete unity." 

The Holy See never confirmed those were the actual relics of St. Peter. Pope Francis, however, is not interested so much in the historical authenticity of the bones. Mostly, he focuses on another issue: “What is their spiritual message?”

The history of the finding of the relics is likely one of the most intriguing “archeological yellow stories” of the 20th century.

The Catholic Church venerated for about 2,000 years the place of burial of St. Peter, but the finding of the relics of the saint dates back only to 1960s.

The story begins in the 1940s, with the beginning of the works to build the Pius XI’s tomb in the grotto. 

The works lead to an archeological excavation. Between 1940 and 1949, Vatican archeologists find a Roman necropolis and a small monument right under the altar of St. Peter, which was evidently dedicated to the apostle and likely indicated the place of his burial. 

The monument was within a funeral fence, a small niche that stayed at the center both of the Constantinian Basilica and of the current St. Peter Basilica. St. Peter’s Basilica was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine and then rebuilt in the 15th century. 

There were many findings, but all related to the tomb of Peter, not the relics. What was in the monument and underneath the memorial had been destroyed. 

Pius XII, in his Christmas radio message of Dec. 23, 1950, underscored that “the tomb of St. Peter has been found”, while there was no certainty about the relics. “Around the tomb, Pope Pius XII said, human bones were found, but it is impossible to prove with certainty that they belonged to the apostle.” 

During the 1960s, Professor Margherita Guiducci announces she found the bones of Peter. Guiducci was an epigraphist, after several studies of the graffiti of Christians in the area around the tomb of Peter.

She said that a worker who took part in the excavations showed her, in the storage, a group of bones that archaeologists found and forgot. The bones would belong to an only man, a male, enveloped in a precious tissue.

Guarducci is a friend to Paul VI, and she tells him her discovery. The Pope seems convinced and, on June 26, 1968, he announces that “new patient and very accurate investigations took place, and we deem the outcome positive: even St. Peter’s relics have been identified convincingly, we might say.” 

However, there is no certainty that the bones are St. Peter’s. The analysis seems to confirm sex, age, and historical period fit to the life of the Apostle, the identification of the bones was based on the place where the bones were taken.

The bones were in a hole in a second wall of the niche, built before the construction of Constantinian Basilica with the scope to support the other wall, damaged by a crack. 

Guarducci studied the graffiti on the outer side of the wall, where there was this little hole. The archeologists found the hole empty. The worker revealed to Guarducci that he had taken the bones before the archeologists get thereupon an order of Mons. Ludwig Kaas, who was responsible for St. Peter’s Fabric during the excavations. 

It is not proved, though, that the bones belong to St. Peter. First of all, the place where the bones were allegedly located is strange. Guarducci said that the bones were taken out of the original tomb to save them from persecutions. 

Guarducci said that the prove the bones were the bones of Peter in an inscription she found in the hole. There were a few letters, which she interpreted as “Petros eni,” the ancient Greek for “Peter is here.” Those words would indicate the real place of burial of the bones of the saint. 

Other epigraphists questioned Guarducci's interpretation. For example, Carlo Carletti wrote in L’Osservatore Romano of Apr. 3, 2013 that the inscription is part of the phrase “Petros en irene,” Peter in peace, one of the most common acclamations to the saint since the 3rd Century. 

It cannot be excluded that the bones belong to St. Peter.  It cannot be proved either. 

There is also another possibility: that the bones were placed inside a tomb destroyed while in construction. The tomb of Peter was damaged, nobody knows when. It was likely up during the construction of the Constantinian basilica in the 4th century. 

In 846, under Pope Serge II,  Saracens got to Rome and devastated St. Peter’s Basilica. It is possible that the tomb of Peter was plundered in that period. Serge II’s successor, Leo IV, decided to build the Leonian Walls to protect the Basilica. 

Paul VI seemed convinced of the authenticity of the relics and wanted to put the nine fragments of bones together and he kept them close to his heart.

Andrea Tornielli recounted on Vatican News: “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 is believed to be of Blessed Peter the Apostle).” 

The relics were exposed only once, on Nov. 23, 2013, at the end of the year of faith. It was Pope Francis to decide to expose them.

As said, to Pope Francis, it is not crucial whether the relics were real or not. What they represent mattes more: a 2,000 years history, a communion that started a long time ago. 

Giving the relics to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not just a sign of proximity. It is a symbolic gesture that dates back to the beginning of Christianity when the Church was undivided. 

Pope Francis did not care about the possible criticism of his gesture. He preferred focusing on the ecumenical meaning. “This gift is not from me. It is from God,” he said to Metropolitan Job of Telmessos. 

Now, those fragments which are considered Peter’s bones will lie in the Phanar, the headquarters of Ecumenical Patriarchate.  Peter and Andrew will then symbolically be back together, though not in Rome. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.