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.