Pope Francis uses incense to bless a bronze reliquary containing the relics of St. Peter the Apostle during a Mass concluding the Year of Faith in St. Peter's Square in 2013. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

In June of 594, Pope Gregory the Great received a letter from Constantina, the Byzantine empress, asking him to send the head of St. Paul to Constantinople so that she and others might benefit from venerating the bodily remains of such a great saint. St. Gregory denied her request, noting that it was not the custom of the Roman Church to dismember the bodies of the canonized.

A great deal has happened between Rome and Constantinople since the sixth century, but Pope Francis’s decision last month to send the Ecumenical Patriarch an actual portion of the body of St. Peter should be understood as nothing short of remarkable. More than anything else, it is a clear indication of the pontiff’s desire to advance the cause of Christian unity.

A point of clarification might help to demonstrate why Francis’s unprecedented gift is so  significant. Since late antiquity, the bishops of Rome have used relics to pursue diplomatic ends. But the relics they distributed were typically not the actual physical remains of the saints. Rather, they were a piece of cloth or metal that had come into contact with a saint’s body. For most of its history, the Vatican collected the bodily relics of the saints; it was not a distribution center.

St. Gregory wrote more about the miraculous power of relics than any other early Christian writer. He was also the first pope to use the relics of St. Peter as a central piece of his international diplomacy. On more than a dozen occasions, the pontiff sent the filings of the chains that had bound St. Peter to secular and ecclesiastical officials, whether to get their support for a papal initiative or to thank them for having given it.

In the centuries after Gregory’s tenure, Rome began to accumulate a large number of bodily relics. Some might say this was done out of devotion, others might argue that it was a strategy designed to assert control over popular devotion. Either way, only Constantinople possessed more relics than Rome…until it didn’t. In the thirteenth century, crusaders sacked Constantinople and seized its religious treasure. Some of the looted relics went to monasteries and cathedrals across western Europe, but the majority went to Rome.

From the Crusades until the twentieth century, Christian East and Christian West suffered a prolonged state of hostility. In the Vatican II era, however, Orthodox-Catholic relations underwent a remarkable thaw. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras met on the Mount of Olives and rescinded the mutual excommunications, which had been in effect since the eleventh century. Following that breakthrough, papal diplomacy turned once again to relics, albeit this time as a correction of past wrongs: a portion of the body of St. Andrew the Apostle was returned to the Church of Greece; part of the body of St. Mark the Evangelist was restored to the Coptic Church.

Francis’s gift of Petrine relics to the Ecumenical Patriarch is significant because it is an unfettered divestment of a portion of what is arguably the Vatican’s most precious religious treasure.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II’s final public act served as a poignant end to his lifelong commitment to Christian unity: he and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew co-officiated at a prayer service that witnessed the transfer of large portions of the bodies of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom to the Christians of Constantinople. During their lives, both saints had served as Archbishop of Constantinople, but their remains had been in Rome since the Fourth Crusade. The event led to several additional high-profile encounters between the Ecumenical Patriarch and his papal counterparts: Pope Benedict traveled to Turkey in 2006, Bartholomew attended Francis’s inauguration in 2013 (the first Ecumenical Patriarch to attend a papal inauguration), and in 2017 both Francis and Bartholomew joined Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Church in Cairo for an unprecedented prayer service.

Whereas those endeavors involved extensive coordination and planning, Pope Francis’s decision to offer the Petrine gift to his “brother” Bartholomew appears to have been an impromptu decision that he made during evening prayer. According to reports, the pontiff told Archbishop Job, Bartholomew’s representative, that he was giving the relics of St. Peter to the Ecumenical Patriarch because he thought “it would be better for them to be kept in Constantinople.” 

Pope Francis’s gift of bodily relics of St. Peter is so remarkable because, unlike the other recent relic exchanges, this is not a righting of a previous wrong, not a return to the Orthodox of something that was historically theirs. Rather, Francis’s gift of Petrine relics to the Ecumenical Patriarch is significant because it is an unfettered divestment of a portion of what is arguably the Vatican’s most precious religious treasure—the very foundation of its symbolic authority in the Christian world.

Not surprisingly, some of Francis’s detractors quickly decried the gift as a capitulation to political expediency or, worse, an offering to heretics. Several (uniquely American) right-wing Catholic websites criticized the move as indicative of a pontiff who fails to understand how best to harness the power of the saints.

To be sure, in the Middle Ages, several popes used the relics and legacy of St. Peter as weapons in asserting their authority over other ecclesiastical and political leaders. But Pope Francis has turned the medieval paradigm on its head. In his hands, the relics of St. Peter function as a gift of genuine of Christian love: a true self-emptying of power and influence. Francis sees in Bartholomew a genuine brother. And with this act, Francis is signaling to the rest of us that he is willing to go further than his predecessors—even the sainted Gregory—to pursue reconciliation between the two Christian communions. To my mind, Francis is right to recognize that the case for Christian unity between Orthodox and Catholics requires a rejection of the notion, popular in the middle ages, that the saints and their relics are to be wielded as instruments of power. When the Ecumenical Patriarch had the opportunity to venerate the relics for the first time, he observed that “Pope Francis made a grand, fraternal, and historic gesture.” He then added that he was deeply moved by Francis’s bold initiative.

American Christians are so subconsciously formed by a Protestant/post-Protestant outlook that even American Catholics and Orthodox typically fail to appreciate the religious and cultural power of the relics of the saints. On a recent trip to Romania, I was asked about religious observance in the United States. My interlocutor was not very concerned about liturgy, personal prayer, or fasting; he wanted to know whether American Christians had access to the bodies of the saints.

While many Americans may not understand the genuine significance of the bestowal of a relic of St. Peter, Pope Francis clearly does.

A shorter version of this essay first appeared on Public Orthodoxy.

George E. Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff  & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University. Follow him on Twitter @GDemacopoulos

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Published in the August 9, 2019 issue: View Contents
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