By Benedetta Capelli
In the dim half-light of the Vatican Necropolis, beneath St Peter’s Basilica, lie the remains of Saint Peter, the first Pope.
Inside an ancient wall under the papal altar, are nineteen transparent cases containing fragments of the bones that belonged to the Prince of the Apostles. After lengthy investigations, scientists have confirmed that these remains are those of a strongly-built man who died in old age. The bones of his feet are missing: a detail recalling that Peter chose to be crucified upside down.
Pope Pius XII
Pius XII was the Pope who, in 1939, ordered excavations under the Basilica. Ten years later the discovery of Peter's burial place was announced. But it was only in 1952 that excavations revealed a funerary niche covered with precious graffiti and containing the bones now believed to be those of the Apostle.
Pope Paul VI
In Pope Francis’ gift of the relics to Patriarch Bartholomew, on 29 June 2019, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, there are echoes of his predecessor, Pope Paul VI who was always convinced of the authenticity of those remains. Paul IV had the nineteen cases placed beneath St Peter’s main altar in 1968. Later he had nine of these cases removed, laid inside a bronze reliquary, and housed in the Pope’s private chapel inside the Apostolic Palace.
On 24 November 2013, at the end of the Year of Faith Pope Francis requested that the relics be placed on the side of the altar where they remained throughout the closing Mass.
In his Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, released on the Feast of St John Chrysostom, the Pope explains that he sensed the Holy Spirit was behind the thought that some fragments of the relics of the Apostle Peter should be placed alongside those of the Apostle Andrew, “venerated as the heavenly patron of the Church of Constantinople”.
Peter and Andrew
“The joining of the relics of the two brother Apostles”, writes the Pope, “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 in the service of a human family that today is tempted to build a purely secular future, a future without God”.