Italian archbishop Rino Fisichella holds the ashes of Saint Peter before a ceremony at the Vatican, on November 24, 2013 (AFP Photo / Vincenzo Pinto, via Yahoo News)Today the Roman Catholic Church marched out relics which, the Vatican claims, belong to St Peter, the man whom legend claims established Christianity in the Roman Empire’s capital. The AFP via Yahoo News reports on this momentous occasion (WebCite cached article):

Bones believed to belong to Saint Peter, one of the founding fathers of the Catholic Church, went on display for the first time Sunday, as Pope Francis held a ceremony to end the “Year of Faith”.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered to catch a glimpse of the remains, eight fragments of bone between two and three centimetres (around one inch) long displayed on an ivory bed within a bronze chest on a pedestal in St. Peter’s Square.

The chest, given to pope Paul VI in 1971 and usually kept in the tiny chapel of the papal apartments, was decorated with a carving of Peter, who was a fisherman before becoming the Church’s first pope, casting his nets into the sea.

Given that Christianity in the city of Rome does date back to the first century CE, and has had a more-or-less continuous presence there since, one would think these bones might have been collected and saved all that time. But that turns out not to be the case. These relics were a 20th century discovery, and it’s not at all clear these are truly the bones of St Peter. But the Vatican is undeterred by archaeological questions:

The bones have long been the object of controversy between historians and archaeologists: they were first discovered in a 1940 dig next to an ancient monument honouring Saint Peter, but ended up gathering dust in a storage box.

It was not until archaeologist Margherita Guarducci discovered graffiti near the excavated tomb reading “Petros eni”, which could mean “Peter is here”, that she requested tests on the fragments.

She found they belonged to a robust man who died aged between 60 and 70 and had been buried in a purple, gold-threaded cloth — enough to convince Paul VI to say in 1968 that Peter’s bones had been identified “in a convincing manner.”…

“Faith, the people of God, have always believed these to be the relics of the apostle Peter, and we continue to venerate them in this way,” Rino Fisichella, head of the pontifical council for evangelisation, said in the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

The veneration of saints’ relics is a feature of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity which most other Christian sects have done away with. It seems a fairly unsavory practice to cling desperately to the physical remains of long-dead people. But the macabre nature of relic-worship doesn’t faze Catholics. They continue to believe such things carry metaphysical power that somehow connects them more closely to their God … a God whom they believe is omnipotent and therefore, presumably, doesn’t require such things to maintain his connection with his followers.

Let’s face it: People are irrational creatures, and it’s events like these that help demonstrate it.

Photo credit: AFP Photo / Vincenzo Pinto, via Yahoo News.

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