VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In what Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople described as a “brave and bold” gesture, Pope Francis gave the patriarch a famous reliquary containing bone fragments believed to belong to St. Peter.
The only time the bronze reliquary has been displayed publicly was in November 2013, when Pope Francis had it present for public veneration as he celebrated the closing Mass for the Year of Faith, opened by Pope Benedict XVI.
The bronze case contains nine of the bone fragments discovered during excavations of the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica that began in the 1940s.
In the 1960s, archaeologist Margherita Guarducci published a paper asserting that she had found St. Peter’s bones near the site identified as his tomb.
While no pope has ever declared the bones to be authentic, St. Paul VI announced in 1968 that the “relics” of St. Peter had been “identified in a way which we can hold to be convincing.”
Pope Paul took nine of the bone fragments, commissioned the bronze reliquary, and kept the relics in his private chapel in the papal apartments.
Pope Francis removed them from the chapel June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
Patriarch Bartholomew had sent a delegation led by Archbishop Job of Telmessos to the Vatican for the feast day celebrations. After the solemn Mass, Pope Francis and Archbishop Job went down to St. Peter’s tomb under the high altar to pray.
Then, the archbishop recounted, Pope Francis asked him to wait for him because he had a gift for his “brother” Patriarch Bartholomew. The pope came back and led the archbishop to his little blue Ford Focus and they were driven to the Apostolic Palace.
They entered the chapel of the old papal apartment, where Pope Francis chose not to live, and “the pope took the reliquary that his predecessor Paul VI had placed in the little chapel and offered it to his guest,” according to Vatican News.
“For us, this was an extraordinary and unexpected event that we could not have hoped for,” Vatican News quoted the archbishop as saying.
He phoned Patriarch Bartholomew as soon as he could to tell him the news.
Arrangements quickly were made for Msgr. Andrea Palmieri, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to accompany the relics to the Phanar, the Orthodox patriarchate’s headquarters in Istanbul.
It was “another gigantic step toward concrete unity,” Archbishop Job said.
At a ceremony June 30 to receive the relics and venerate them, Patriarch Bartholomew said, “Pope Francis made this grand, fraternal and historic gesture” of giving the Orthodox fragments of the relics of St. Peter.
“I was deeply moved,” the patriarch said, according to the news published on the patriarchate’s Facebook page along with 15 photos. “It was a brave and bold initiative of Pope Francis.”
Leaving the Apostolic Palace
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.
Admitting to being somewhat taken aback by the Pope’s decision, Archbishop Job said: “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,” the archbishop added. “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.”
An ominous sign?
But some observers view the gesture as an ominous sign for the Church and for Rome.
“Pope Francis literally gave St. Peter away,” one source in Rome told LifeSite. “Incredible as a gesture.”
“The relics were in the Pope’s private chapel,” a priest noted. “He clearly prefers to make a ‘gesture’ of the relics than to pray before them and receive special graces from his patron, the first Pope.”
“It is an entirely secular way of thinking, and what he reaps — secularization — he will sow for the whole Church, in a way no one expects,” he added.
In comments to LifeSite, another priest in Rome noted how important “locus,” i.e. place, is in Catholic thought, and added that it was the Lord’s will that Peter be martyred in Rome.
The priest pointed out that Christian art and literature have depicted Peter fleeing crucifixion in Rome during Emperor Nero’s persecution. According to a Christian tradition, on a road outside the city, Peter met the risen Jesus. In the Latin translation, Peter asks Jesus, “Quo vadis, Domine?,” to which the risen Lord responds: “Romam eo iterum crucifigi” (“I am going to Rome to be crucified again”). The vision gave Peter the courage to return to the city, where he was martyred by being crucified upside down.
“I strongly suspect this is a sign that St. Peter’s protection will be leaving the Vatican,” an observer in Rome said. “What to watch for next: Francis gives relics of St Paul to Protestants. It would be in the same line as the logic of this move. And it would further remove divine protection, preparing St Peter’s for a devastation not seen since the sack of Rome in the 1500s.”
On the evening of June 29, the relics were transferred from Rome to Constantinople, accompanied by Monsignor Andrea Palmieri, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. On June 30, they were exposed for public veneration during a solemn Divine Liturgy celebrated by Patriarch Bartholomew, who described Pope Francis’s decision as a “brave and bold” gesture.
The reliquary is now being kept at the ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul.
“Often signs are given to us,” one observer commented on Twitter following the news. “St. Peter leaving Rome for the East means only one [thing]: the judgment has been passed upon Rome.