To mark the end of the Year of Faith, the Vatican has for the first time publicly displayed the bones of St. Peter. While no pope has ever definitively declared the fragments to belong to the apostle Peter, Pope Paul VI in 1968 said fragments found in the necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica were “identified in a way that we can consider convincing”.
The bones were discovered in 1939 in an excavation of the Vatican Necropolis below the main altar at Saint Peter’s Basilica, which has been the consistent traditional burial place of the first Pope since antiquity. The excavation, ordered by Pope Pius XII, found the bones in a first century funerary wall creche, with a Greek inscription of “Petros eni”, or “Peter is here”. The bones were found wrapped in purple and gold threaded cloth. Scientific study of the bones showed them to be of a “robust” man in his 60’s-70’s at the time of death.
The relics, normally kept in the private chapel of the Pope’s Vatican apartments, were presented to tens of thousands of pilgrims who gathered to catch a glimpse of the relics. The eight fragments of bone between two and three centimetres (around one inch) long were displayed on an ivory bed within a bronze chest on a pedestal in St. Peter’s Square.
Reflecting upon the relics of St. Peter, whose very name means “Rock”, and their location below the Main Altar of St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill, one can not help but meditate on Peter’s confession in the Gospel of Matthew , and Our Lord’s words to him in Matthew 16:18:
“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”