When Pope Francis cradled the small box said to contain nine bone fragments believed to be the mortal remains of St. Peter, the first pope, he fanned the flames of a long-standing debate over the authenticity of ancient church relics.
Most old churches in Italy contain some ancient relic, ranging from a glass tube said to hold the blood of St. Gennaro in Naples to a section of what is believed to be Jesus’ umbilical cord in the Basilica of St. John of Lateran in Rome. Perhaps the most famous religious relic in Italy — the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth — will go on display again in early 2015, and Turin Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia this week invited Pope Francis to attend its public debut.
But St. Peter’s bones are of particular importance, since they are the very basis — both architecturally and spiritually — for Catholicism’s most important church. And yet the bones were only discovered during a series of excavations in the 1940s, almost 1,900 years after Peter died, in either 64 or 67 A.D.
The Vatican said it would display for the first time bones believed to be the mortal remains of St. Peter, the leader of Jesus’ 12 apostles, to mark the end of the Year of Faith on Nov. 24.
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, wrote in Monday’s editions of L’Osservatore Romano, that the Catholic faithful making a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s tomb to mark the end of the Year of Faith will enjoy “the exposition … of the relics traditionally recognized as those of the apostle who gave his life for the Lord on this spot.”
Fisichella was referring to the long-held belief that Peter was crucified upside down and died in either A.D. 64 or 67 on the spot now marked by the Clementine Chapel inside the basilica that bears his name.
Years ago on a bright Tuesday in March, I was driving to seminary and I found myself stuck in traffic on I-25. Sitting in a dead stop on the interstate I stared up into the clear blue Colorado sky and thought, “What in the world am I doing? I don’t believe a word of this Jesus stuff. I mean, It’s a fairy tale.”
But then in the very next moment I thought, “Except…throughout my life…I have experienced it to be true.”
I experience the gospel to be true even when I can’t believe it. And honestly sometimes I believe the gospel even when I don’t experience it. And I suggest to you today that this is why we have and even why we need Word and Sacrament. Because see, we are a forgetful people.
And it is to this office of Word and Sacrament that you have been called Matthew and I feel like in an ordination sermon, the preacher should in some way address the level of preparedness of the ordinand in question, and I am in a position to do just that.
How are you? I am fine.
Actually that’s not true.
See, I wrote another sermon this week. A real one. I worked on it all week. And then yesterday afternoon I threw it away and just wrote you this letter instead. Because I realized that in my sermon I was trying really hard to convince you of something.
Everybody needs forgiveness.
But it’s hard to face that. It feels threatening, like an accusation. So we tend to get defensive and start justifying ourselves, rather than seeing the one we’ve hurt.
If we’re honest, though, we all know that we’ve done things that have hurt others. Probably lots of things.