The Vatican publicly unveiled a handful of bone fragments purportedly belonging to St Peter, reviving the scientific debate and tantalising mystery over whether the relics found in a shoe box truly belong to the first pope.
The nine pieces of bone sat nestled like rings in a jewel box inside a bronze display case on the side of the altar during a Mass commemorating the end of the Vatican’s year-long celebration of the Christian faith. It was the first time they had ever been exhibited in public.
Pope Francis prayed before the fragments at the start of the service and then clutched the case in his arms for several minutes after his homily.
No pope has ever definitively declared the fragments to belong to the apostle, Peter, but Pope Paul VI in 1968 said fragments found in the necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica were “identified in a way that we can consider convincing”.
Some archaeologists dispute the finding. But last week, a top Vatican official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, said it almost doesn’t matter if archaeologists one day definitively determine that the bones aren’t Peter’s, saying Christians have prayed at Peter’s tomb for two millennia and will continue to, regardless.
“It’s not as if pilgrims who go to the altar (of Peter’s tomb) think that in that moment in which they profess their faith that below them are the relics of Peter, or of another or another still,” he told reporters. “They go there to profess the faith.”
The relics were discovered during excavations begun under St Peter’s Basilica in the years following the 1939 death of Pope Pius XI, who had asked to be buried in the grottoes where dozens of popes are buried, according to the 2012 book by veteran Vatican correspondent Bruno Bartoloni, The Ears of the Vatican.
During the excavations, archaeologists discovered a funerary monument with a casket built in honour of Peter and an engraving in Greek that read “Petros eni,” or “Peter is here.”
The scholar of Greek antiquities, Margherita Guarducci, who had deciphered the engraving continued to investigate and learned one of the basilica workers had been given the remains found inside the casket and stored them in a shoe box. She reported her findings to Paul VI who later proclaimed that there was a “convincing” argument that the bones belonged to Peter.
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