Saint Peter has been put on public display by the Vatican, or at least nine bone fragments of Saint Peter. The bone remnants from the first pope of the Catholic Church, resting in a jeweled box which in turn is nestled inside of a carved bronze case, were put on a pedestal for public viewing outside of the Basilica of Saint Peter by Pope Francis during the Vatican’s end of the year mass today. During the mass, Pope Francis bowed and fanned incense over the small casket holding the bones.
The identification of the bones, which were discovered in 1939 during an excavation of Saint Peter’s Basilica, remains controversial and has been argued among archaeologists and scholars since the discovery was made. In a book written by Vatican correspondent Bruno Bartoloni, he states that because of a curse 1,000 years old that bestows upon anyone disturbing Saint Peter’s burial place horrible misfortune, no pope would allow a definitive study of the remains.
The bones, along with a monument built in Saint Peter’s honor, were discovered after the death of Pope Pius XI, who had requested that his bones be buried along with dozens of other popes in the grottoes of the Basilica. One of the workers in the basilica at the time of the excavation was given the contents of the casket, which he stored in a cupboard inside of a shoe box. Archaeologist Margherita Guarducci later discovered graffiti close to the tomb that she translated to read “Petros eni,” which is Greek for “Peter is here,” prompting her to request that the ancient remains be tested.
Upon scientific analysis, Guarducci determined that the bones were of a healthy man between ages 60 and 70 who had been buried in purple cloth containing gold threading. Her findings were enough to convince Pope Paul VI to state in 1968 that the bone fragments had been “identified in a way that we consider convincing.” This statement had been the most definitive by any pope in regards to the identification of the bones until last week, when archbishop Rino Fisichella spoke about the controversy, stating that those who go to Peter’s tomb do so to “profess the faith” and do not consider the bones resting beneath them while doing so.
An urn which contained the bone fragments was given to Paul VI in 1971 and has been stored inside the Apostolic Palace’s private chapel. During each year’s feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29, the relics have been exhibited privately to the pope, and until Sunday had never been displayed publicly. Many thousands of worshipers were present in the hopes of seeing the bones, which are described as being in eight fragments that are approximately one inch long.
Saint Peter is regarded as a founding member of the Catholic church and served as an apostle of Jesus. It is thought that he was crucified in Rome, which was ruled by Emperor Nero at the time. Before becoming the first pope of the Catholic Church, Saint Peter made his living as a fisherman, surely never imagining that his bones would be displayed by the Vatican these hundreds of years later.
By Jennifer Pfalz