In a surprising move at the end of last month, Pope Francis gave relics attributed to St Peter the Apostle to the Orthodox Church. While the gesture was widely praised, some observers have suggested it was inappropriate given the centrality of Rome for Catholics, and so the natural and only location for the first Pope’s remains.
There’s no doubt that everyone was caught off guard when Francis presented a delegation representing Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople a bronze reliquary containing nine bone fragments believed to belong to St Peter.
These types of meetings have been taking place for decades, and this year was no different. Metropolitan Job of Telmessos led the delegation, participated in a Mass, and together with the Pope worshipped at the tomb of St Peter on the liturgical feast of the Apostle Ss Peter and Paul.
However, in an unplanned move, Francis then proceeded to gift them with the nine bone fragments.
While no Pope has ever declared the bones to be authentic, St Paul VI announced in 1968 that the “relics” has been “identified in away which we can hold to be convincing”. Subsequently, nine of the bone shards were contained in a reliquary and kept in the then-Pope’s private chapel in the papal apartments. They were removed only once – in 2013 – when Francis chose to display them for public veneration during the closing Mass for the Year of Faith.
Now, they find their home in Phanar, headquarters of Ecumenical Patriarchate.
But was the sharing of the shards a misappropriation of power and a subversion of the Church’s patrimony, or was it just another important step towards concrete unity? It seems that the latter is much more likely.
Commenting on it, Dr Joan Patricia Back of the Irish Inter-Church Committee said: “The gift of the relics of St Peter by Pope Francis to the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew is a historical ecumenical gesture in line with those which have characterised recent Popes.
“However, though relics of saints common to both the Orthodox and Catholic Church have been donated to the Orthodox Church over the years, the significance of this gift which was not something requested or prepared beforehand places this impromptu “gesture of brotherly love” on an historical first.
This sentiment echoes the words of Metropolitan Job, who received the gift from the hands of the Pope. “This time, for the first time in history, the relics of St Peter are being given and sent out of Rome to the Church of Constantinople. This is a giant step towards a more concrete unity.”
The gesture signifies an ever-closer bond between the two different Churches, and represents a hope that full communion will be a reality in the future.
“The strengthening of communion between Patriarchs and Popes from Athenagoras and Paul VI’s time is challenging to Christians of both Churches to follow them along the path towards full communion; the distance and time of this journey depends on us,” Dr Back told The Irish Catholic.
For those criticising the Pontiff, it’s important to remember that the tomb of St Peter rests safely in Rome. And it’s also a fitting metaphor that the key holder of the Faith remains at the Church’s epicentre, but also continues to go out into the world, drawing people towards him.