On June 29 2019, the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, Pope Francis gave to the delegation representing the Œcumenical Patriarch, a reliquary containing nine bone fragments of St Peter the Apostle. While the majority of Peter’s relics are under the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica, St Paul VI had taken the fragments to be kept in the private chapel of the papal apartment. Upon consigning the relics to the Orthodox delegation for conveyance to Constantinople, Pope Francis told the archbishops that the idea had occurred to him the previous evening.
“I no longer live in the Apostolic Palace, I never use this chapel, I never serve the Holy Mass here, and we have St Peter’s relics in the basilica itself, so it will be better if they will be kept in Constantinople,” Pope Francis said. “This is my gift to the Church of Constantinople. Please take this reliquary and give it to my brother Patriarch Bartholomew.”
Second only to the relics of the Passion, the bones of St Peter are the most precious thing the Holy See “owns”.
In 2004, just months before his death, Pope John Paul II decided to translate from Rome to Constantinople the relics of St Gregory Nazianzen and St John Chrysostom, two of the great eastern fathers whose relics came to Rome from Constantinople after the city was sacked by the soldiers of the 4th Crusade (1204). “You are following the example of St Basil the Great,” Patriarch Bartholomew told John Paul. “He returned the venerable relics of St Dionysius, Bishop of Milan, who fell asleep in the Lord while in exile because of the Arians. He was buried in the region entrusted to St Basil himself, as the Saint mentioned in his Letter addressed to St Ambrose, the successor of St Dionysius. The Church throughout the world, adorned by the venerable blood of the Martyrs – like purple vestments and fine linen – properly respects the relics of her children who in the Lord bore painful sufferings, crucifixion and death, inflicted by wild beasts, fire, the sword and countless adversities.”
“You are following the example of St Basil the Great,” Patriarch Bartholomew told John Paul.
Pope Francis wrote to the Œcumenical patriarch on August 30, saying the decision to give the relic was born out of prayer and intended as a sign of the ongoing work and prayer toward visible communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Pope Francis gave the relic to a member of a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which attended a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul June 29.
After the Mass, Pope Francis brought Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Job to a chapel in the papal apartments and offered the chapel’s reliquary as a gift. The bronze box contains nine fragments of the bones of St. Peter found in the necropolis beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Orthodox delegation brought the reliquary to Istanbul, where Monsignor Andrea Palmieri, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, personally gave it to Bartholomew.
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, ‘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.
Pope Francis described how Pope 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”.