Pope Francis has decided to put on public display nine tiny fragments of bone which may belong to St Peter, the world’s first Pope.
The fragments were placed in a case on the altar during an open air mass in St Peter’s Square.
The bones reputed to be of St Peter were held aloft by Pope Francis at mass on Sunday – the first time the relics have ever been shown to the public.
Discovered during the excavation of tombs under St Peter’s Basilica in the 1940s, the alleged bones of the saint and apostle who lived 2,000 years ago – and who is considered the first pope – have always been stored in the chapel of the papal apartment.
But to mark the end of the Vatican’s Year of Faith, during which 8.5 million people have visited St Peter’s tomb, the bronze box containing the fragments was brought into St Peter’s Square for an open air mass on Sunday.
Placed on the altar, the box was opened, revealing the fragments – each measuring about an inch long – laid on an ivory base and held down with wire. Pope Francis first wafted incense towards the bones, then held the box aloft during the mass, although he did not refer to them.
The Catholic Church has long been undecided on whether the bones are truly those of St Peter, even though, in 1968 archeologist Margherita Guarducci persuaded Pope Paul VI to say the bones had been “identified in a way we can hold to be convincing”.
Prof. Margherita Guarducci had noticed Greek graffiti near the excavated tomb graffiti that she translated as “Peter is here”, while tests on the bones showed they came from a man in his 60s. But her conclusion was rejected by fellow experts involved in the dig.
A Latin inscription on the outside of the bronze box in which the bones are contained states they are “considered” to be St Peter’s.
Ahead of the unveiling, archbishop Rino Fisichella, the head of the pontifical council for the promotion of new evangelization, said the relics were merely “traditionally recognized” as belonging to Saint Peter.
“It has finally been decided to produce the bones for the public, but these relics have a low profile at the Vatican,” said Marco Ansaldo, a Vatican expert at Italy’s La Repubblica.
“It seems clear the Vatican is not yet sure about the relics and is therefore rather embarrassed” he added.
The Vatican also has an ambivalent view of the Turin Shroud, the length of cloth bearing the image of a man, which was reputedly used to wrap the corpse of Christ. Without confirming if they believe the shroud is genuine, Vatican officials say it has earned its role as an object of veneration.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that producing the bones on Sunday was “a way to feel spiritually close to the story of the tomb and of the apostle. There is a serious possibility they are St Peter’s bones, but we don’t go beyond that”.
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