By Melissa Butz
A reliquary containing nine fragments of St. Peter’s bones had long been kept in the pope’s private chapel, but Pope Francis has decided to give it to the main leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church in order improve ecumenical relations.
Pope Francis explained his reasoning for the gift in a letter sent to Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
Knowing well the importance of relics to the Orthodox Church, the Holy Father clarified the fragments’ origins, recalling that in 1939, Pius XII authorized a dig under St. Peter’s Basilica to locate the original tomb of Peter.
Archaeologists found the tomb under the basilica’s main altar. A few years later, Pope Francis writes, they also identified a niche with some remains of bones that “can reasonably be considered Peter” in the same area.
In that niche, there are still other fragments of St. Peter’s bone relics.
“The relics have this importance, the possibility to show that we are talking about the real and historical faith. Faith has its roots in history. We don’t talk about mythological tales, but real historical events and the showing of the bones is the proof of this historical evidence,” explained Laura Donato, one of the archaeological guides that shows pilgrims the site every day.
As the Orthodox Patriarch already holds the relics of St. Andrew, Peter’s brother, Pope Francis wrote to him writing that “the joining of the relics of the two brother Apostles can also serve as a constant reminder and encouragement that, on this continuing journey, our divergences will no longer stand in the way of our common witness and our evangelizing mission.”