IN June, Pope Francis, on a whim, handed nine bone fragments of Peter the Apostle to the Orthodox Church in Constantinople – without so much as a by your leave.
Now awkward questions are being asked – in particular by Fr Raymond J de Souza, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario. In a piece written for the Catholic Herald, de Souza revealed that the relics gifted to Constantinople had originally been placed by Pope Paul VI (now a saint) in the private chapel of the papal apartment in the Vatican, where they would be:
A source of comfort, strength and intercession for Peter’s successors.
While no Pope has ever declared the bones to be authentic, St Paul VI announced in 1968 that the relics have been:
But on June 29, the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, Francis gave to a delegation representing Bartholomew, Archbishop of the Orthodox Church, a reliquary containing the bones.
According to de Souza, no satisfactory explanation has been given for the Pope’s action.
The manner in which it was done remains inexplicable.
Pope Francis told 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. This is my gift to the Church of Constantinople. Please take this reliquary and give it to my brother Patriarch Bartholomew.
Said de Souza:
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.
Rather than agonise over a few scraps of a crucified saint, De Souza should be concerned over the real problems the Roman Catholic Church has, such as the global sexual abuse of children – especially as the Vatican still retains most of Peter’s relics which are kept beneath the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica.