Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter   Leave a comment

On June 26, 1968, pope Paul VI made a dramatic announcement that put the Catholic Church back in the headlines for reasons other than its stance on women, abortion or contraception.

Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter
Statue of St Peter, Rome [Credit: Age Fotostock/Alamy]

New “very patient and accurate investigations” had been carried out on bones discovered in a Roman cemetery in the Vatican, he declared. The remains had been identified, “in a way we believe to be convincing”, as those of Saint Peter, the Christian martyr who is traditionally held to have been the first pope.

On Sunday, for the first time in nearly two millennia, fragments of those bones are to be displayed in public as part of celebrations to mark the end of the Year of Faith, an initiative launched by Pope Benedict.

Held in an urn usually kept in a private papal chapel, they will be presented for public veneration in St Peter’s Square at a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. But the decision to exhibit the relics is not without controversy. No pontiff has ever said the bones are without doubt those of St Peter and some archaeologists are fairly sure they are not.

Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter
These are the claimed bones of the Jewish Apostle Peter, at the site were they where
found by the Vatican in 1942 [Credit: Fabbrica di San Pietro]

The battle over the bones, which pits a rigorous Jesuit archaeologist against a pioneering female epigraphist, is one of the strangest stories to have come out of the Vatican during the late 20th century, and it may also be one of the least dignified.

On Monday, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, president of the pontifical council for the promotion of the new evangelisation, said he had no qualms about thrusting the relics back into the spotlight.

“We did not want to, and have no intention, of opening up any argument,” said Fisichella, who in a carefully worded article for the semi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano last week described the relics as those “recognised by tradition” as St Peter’s.

Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter
This is the collection of bones claimed to be of “Peter”, soon to be venerated
by Catholics [Credit: Fabbrica di San Pietro]

“We believe … the people of God have always believed these to be the relics of the apostle Peter, and we will thus continue to venerate them and give them the honour they deserve.”

Fisichella also said that “the symbolic value” of the bones – their “underlying theological value” – was hugely important. Regardless of what scientific testing might throw up in the future, he said, Christians would carry on venerating the remains and praying at the tomb of Saint Peter.

The story of how the bones came to be proclaimed Peter’s dates back to 1939, when Pius XII ordered an excavation of the area below St Peter’s Basilica.

Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter
The Petros Fragment from the Red Wall, discovered inside the
repository [Credit: Fabbrica di San Pietro]

Overseen by German monsignor Ludwig Kaas, the digging lasted 11 years and led, in 1950, to a stunning papal radio broadcast that “the tomb of the prince of the apostles” had been found.

But despite the discovery of human bones, the pope was forced to admit that his team had not been able to prove that they were those of the apostle Peter.

Years later, archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, the first woman to lead excavations of the Vatican, became convinced the bones were indeed those of Saint Peter. She convinced Paul VI to commission tests and these revealed they belonged to a robust man who died approximately in his 60s.

Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter
Pope Francis visits the necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican where
St Peter is believed to be buried [Credit: AP]

To the outrage of Antonio Ferrua, the Jesuit father who had been the chief archaeologist on the initial excavation, Guarducci convinced the pope to say the bones were believed to be Saint Peter’s. And, to the disquiet of Ferrua and some other Vatican experts, he did just that. Kaas, Ferrua and Guarducci have all since died.

Editor’s Note

In 1953, two Franciscan monks discovered hundreds of first century ossuaries stored in a cave on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. The archaeologists claimed to have discovered the earliest physical evidence of a Christian community in Jerusalem, including some very familiar Biblical names.

Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter
Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter
Vatican to display bones claimed to be those of Saint Peter
The so-called ‘Ossuary of Saint Peter’ (above) discovered in Jerusalem with an inscription in Aramaic (centre) which reads: “Shimon Bar Yonah” which translates “Simon [Peter] son of Jonah”. Compare Mat 16:17: “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” On the middle stone from the same excavation (below) one sees a mark Chi Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word Christ [Credit: Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevitt]

The name inscribed on one ossuary read: “Shimon Bar Yonah” – Simon, the Son of Jonah, the original Biblical name of the Disciple Peter. However, several scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, disputed that the tomb belonged to Peter, one of the reasons being that there was no inscription referring to him as “Cefa” or “Peter”.

Source: South China Morning Post

Posted November 24, 2013 by kitokinimi in Uncategorized

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