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 yearlong 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 Sunday’s service and then clutched the case in his arms for several minutes after his homily. (AP)
Editor’s note: For people of true faith, such evidence isn’t really necessary. For all the others, no amount of evidence is sufficient.
When the man named Simon Peter was brutally executed, some 1,915 years ago in Rome, there passed away one of that small band of historical personalities who deserve to rank as monumental. In history’s roll of the great in all fields – religionists, statesmen, philosophers, conquerors, educators, scientists – few others can have lived a life similarly fraught, for so long, with such constant, portentous drama. Beginning so obscurely, so humbly, was anyone before or since ever burdened with so weighty and improbable a task? Assuredly, no other has continued, ages after the earth closed over him, to command such deep regard among living multitudes, generation after endless generation.
In the minds – and hearts – of many people it is no small thing that some part of the mortal remains of this man, through whose living body there flowed the power from Jesus to heal the sick and raise the dead, may still be in existence. Even if he is viewed, as in this case he should be, not in a religious context but simply as the first leader of a movement which was to become a world-altering revolution, the question of the survival of his remains still exerts a powerful fascination. And for just over a decade now, precisely that claim has confronted the world.
In the summer of 1968 it was announced by Pope Paul VI that the skeletal remains of St. Peter had at last been found and satisfactorily identified. The revered bones had been unearthed some time before, he said, from the tangle of ancient structures that lay deep beneath the magnificent high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Paul was careful to explain that his statement rested on long and intensive study by experts, but then he deliberately went further, adding the weight of his own prestige. In light of the archaeological and scientific conclusions, he said, “the relics of St. Peter have been identified in a manner which we believe convincing … very patient and accurate investigations were made with a result which we believe positive.” Firmly persuaded as he was, he had felt it nothing less than a duty to make “this happy announcement” at the earliest possible moment.
The circumstance hat the bones were found under the basilica occasioned no great surprise, since the age-old tradition of the church had always located the original grave of the apostle just here. Yet to find that after so achingly long a time, and against all reasonable expectation, some part of this precious body should still be preserved, seemed incredible, a fit occasion for rejoicing. The day following the Pope’s announcement, in solemn ceremony led by Paul himself, the bones were restored to their ancient resting place. Since then, privileged visitors have regularly been allowed to enter the small, silent chamber beneath the high altar to pay homage to the Prince of the Apostles. Through a narrow opening in the repository, the bones themselves encased in several transparent receptacles, are just visible.
In releasing his statement, Paul had purposely kept to the essentials of the matter, leaving the details to be supplied to journalists and others by Vatican officials and those directly concerned in the discovery. When the full story reached print, however, in newspapers around the world, there was immediate and widespread puzzlement. In place of clarification there arose annoying clouds of confusion. At fault, to a large degree, was the intricate mass of archaeological data to be absorbed. But far more significant was a single hugely surprising fact: the bones had not been recently discovered, as the Pope had seemed to imply. On the contrary, they had first been found nearly thirty years before.
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