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The inexplicable transfer of St Peter’s relics to Constantinople

Pope Francis blesses a bronze reliquary containing the relics of St Peter (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

The decision to send the relics of St Peter from the private chapel of the papal apartment to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is still in need of explanation. The manner in which it was done remains inexplicable.

On June 29, the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, Pope Francis gave to the delegation representing Bartholomew, the primus inter pares of the Orthodox Church, a reliquary containing nine bone fragments of 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, a source of comfort, strength and intercession for Peter’s successors. 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.”

A month later, and still there has been no full explanation for the decision. Peter’s relics have no connection whatsoever to Constantinople. Indeed, when the Roman emperor moved the capital eastward, Peter’s successors stubbornly refused to decamp from the city of Peter’s martyrdom.

The rationale that the relics were languishing in the unused papal apartment is not sufficient to transfer them to Constantinople. They could have been moved to the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where the Holy Father does pray. If it was thought that Rome had a superabundance of Petrine relics, the fragments could have been sent to Antioch, the first place where Peter was bishop, before he moved to Rome. Given that there are five patriarchs of Antioch – three eastern Catholic, two Orthodox – Pope Francis could have chosen to show beneficence toward the Eastern Catholic Churches or the Orthodox. Or perhaps a joint shrine as a bold ecumenical project?

Second only to the relics of the Passion, the bones of St Peter are the most precious thing the Holy See “owns”. That ownership is more that of custody than proprietorship, but in either case an explanation is needed. Had Pope Francis given Vladimir Putin the Pietà for the Hermitage, the world would not have accepted as sufficient the explanation that it had occurred to the Holy Father a few hours earlier.

The transfer – “translation” in official parlance – of relics is a matter most grave in the cult of the saints and the Church’s liturgical life. The proposition that relics of such importance would be moved as a spontaneous act, without discernment or collegial consultation, without preparation or explanation, without ceremony or solemnity, is wholly and entirely alien to the entire tradition of the Church.

How important is the translation of relics? Here are some examples. The feast day of St Stephen, the first martyr, is prominently placed the day after Christmas. Why? Because December 26 was when the relics of Stephen were translated to Hagia Sion, a Byzantine basilica in Jerusalem, in 415. And so the feast date remains.

Eastern Christians mark as a feast the translation of the relics of St Nicholas from Myra (Turkey) to Bari (Italy). Indeed, a grand basilica was built to house the relics.

In 2004, just months before his death, St John Paul II decided to translate from Rome to Constantinople the relics of St Gregory Nazianzen and St John Chrysostom, two the great eastern fathers whose relics came to Rome in unfriendly circumstances. Bartholomew came to Rome to venerate the relics together with John Paul in a public celebration, and the two exchanged formal addresses explaining the significance of the occasion.

Declaring John Paul’s decision a “sacred act … that atones for an anomaly and an ecclesiastical injustice,” Bartholomew characterised the translation as deeply rooted in the Church’s tradition, and referred to an patristic example of the East translating relics to the West.

“You are following the example of St Basil the Great,” 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.”

One could only imagine what Bartholomew would have said upon jointly venerating the relics of St Peter in a similar circumstance. But he didn’t have the chance.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca