Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople described the move as a “brave and bold” gesture, while Pope Francis referred to it as a gift to a brother.
In what many are calling a historic gesture to bring two divided churches closer together, Pope Francis surprised a visiting delegation of Greek Orthodox hierarchs and presented them with a bronze reliquary containing what many believe to be the relics, or bone fragments, or St. Peter.
The bone fragments were kept in the Papal Chapel and were only displayed publicly once, in 2013. The ornate box was handed over by Pope Francis to Archbishop Job of Telmessos, the head of the Patriarchal Delegation, comprised also by Bishop Maximos of Melitini and Deacon Vosporios.
The official welcome took place on Sunday, June 30, the Feast of the Synaxis of the Holy Twelve Apostles, in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Feriköy, with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew officiating at the Divine Liturgy.
Following the Divine Liturgy His All-Holiness stated: “Pope Francis made this grand, fraternal, historical gesture of giving us fragments of the relic of Saint Peter, the founder of the Church of Rome, that I venerated just a moment ago and I was deeply moved. It was a brave and daring decision taken by Pope Francis to the Church of Constantinople, for which we express our gratitude to him.”
The bronze case contains nine of the bone fragments discovered during excavations of the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica that began in the 1940s.
In the 1960s, archaeologist Margherita Guarducci published a paper asserting that she had found St. Peter’s bones near the site identified as his tomb.
While no pope has ever declared the bones to be authentic, St. Paul VI announced in 1968 that the “relics” of St. Peter had been “identified in a way which we can hold to be convincing.”
The Churches of Rome and Constantinople have established the exchange of reciprocal visits of official delegations on their Thronal feasts since the 1960’s.
George Demacopoulos, the chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University called the move “nothing short of remarkable” in a post on Public Orthodoxy.
“Pope Francis’s gift of a bodily relic of St. Peter is so remarkable because, unlike these other recent exchanges, it is not a righting of a previous wrong, not a return to the Orthodox of something that was historically theirs. No, Francis’s gift of a Petrine relic to the Ecumenical Patriarch is significant because it is an unfettered divestment of portion of what is arguably the Vatican’s most precious religious treasure—the very foundation of its symbolic authority in the Christian world,” according to Demacopoulos.
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