By Vatican News
Pope Francis has written to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, in order, as the Pope says in his letter, “to explain more fully the gift of some fragments of the relics of the Apostle Peter that I presented to Your Holiness”.
The background to the gift
In the letter to the Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople, Pope Francis reviews what he calls “the uninterrupted tradition of the Roman Church” which “has always testified that the Apostle Peter, after his martyrdom in the Circus of Nero, was buried in the adjoining necropolis on the Vatican Hill”.
The Pope goes on to recount how the tomb “quickly became a place of pilgrimage for the faithful from every part of the Christian world”, and how, later, the Emperor Constantine erected the Basilica dedicated to St Peter over the site.
The discovery of the bones
The letter goes on to explain how, in June 1939, immediately following his election, Pope Pius XII decided to undertake excavations beneath the Vatican Basilica. These works “led first to the discovery of the exact burial place of the Apostle and later, in 1952, to the discovery, under the high altar of the Basilica, of a funerary niche attached to a red wall dated to the year 150 and covered with precious graffiti, including one of fundamental importance which reads, in Greek, Πετρος ενι (“Peter is here”). This contained bones that can quite reasonably be considered those of the Apostle Peter”.
These relics are now enshrined in the necropolis under Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The nine fragments
In his letter, Pope Francis describes how Pope Saint Paul VI had nine fragments removed and placed in the private chapel of the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace. The nine fragments were placed in a bronze case bearing an inscription in Latin, which reads: “Bones found in the earth beneath the Vatican Basilica considered to be those of Blessed Peter the Apostle”.
“It was this same case, containing nine fragments of the bones of the Apostle”, writes Pope Francis, “that I desired to present to Your Holiness and to the beloved Church of Constantinople over which you preside with such devotion”.
The gift of Patriarch Athenagoras
Pope Francis shares how he “reflected on our mutual determination to advance together towards full communion”, and how he “thanked God for the progress already made since our venerable predecessors met in Jerusalem over fifty years ago”.
The Pope says he thought of the gift that Patriarch Athenagoras gave to Pope Paul VI: “an icon depicting the brothers Peter and Andrew embracing, united in faith and in love of their common Lord”.
This icon, concludes Pope Francis, has become “a prophetic sign of the restoration of that visible communion between our Churches to which we aspire and for which we fervently pray and work”.