Skip to main content

The bones of Peter and the eyes of faith

By John L. Allen Jr., Special to CNN
updated 12:57 PM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
Pope Francis blesses the remains of St Peter during a ceremony of Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King at St Peter's square on November 24, 2013 at the Vatican. Pope Francis blesses the remains of St Peter during a ceremony of Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King at St Peter's square on November 24, 2013 at the Vatican.
HIDE CAPTION
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
St. Peter's bones to go on display at Vatican
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roman Catholics will gather at the Vatican Sunday for service marking "Year of Faith"
  • Bones believed to be those of St. Peter will be displayed for first time
  • Vatican analyst says while bones' identity is unconfirmed, they are an object of devotion
  • John Allen: Bones are a "scientific controversy... wrapped in a blanket of belief"

Editor's note: John L. Allen Jr. is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and senior Vatican analyst for CNN. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Pope Francis generally comes off as so hip, so completely at home in the 21st century, it's tempting to forget he's also a deeply religious believer and therefore sees the world fairly differently than most of his fellow celebrities and pop culture icons.

We'll get a reminder of the point on Sunday, when Francis presides over a service in Rome's Basilica of St. Peter featuring a rare public exhibit of what Catholic tradition regards as the bones of Peter, the Church's first pope.

The secular mind can't help asking, "Are these really Peter's bones?" and "How do we know?" For believers such as Francis, however, the more relevant question is, "What spiritual message do they have?"

In a nutshell, the pope, as well as the throngs of believers who'll line up to see the bones, will venerate them not on the basis of empirical evidence, but a spiritual conviction that they evoke the very origins of the papacy and of Christianity. They invite devotees to see themselves as part of a 2,000-year "communion of saints" whose original leader was a poor fisherman, who the Bible says denied Jesus three times, yet whose faith was so strong in the end that he gave his life to defend it.

The exhibit is designed to wrap up a "Year of Faith" for Catholics around the world originally launched under Pope Benedict XVI, and carried to its conclusion by Francis.

Pope Francis is pope of the people
Pope Francis's popularity grows
Pope Francis wins over the web

To be sure, there's a beguiling detective story behind the bones.

Detective story

St. Peter's Basilica was originally constructed in 330 A.D. by the Emperor Constantine, over an old pagan cemetery believed to be the burial site of Peter, whom tradition holds was martyred by being crucified upside down.

For the next sixteen centuries nobody poked around underneath the basilica to see what was actually down there, feeling that the site was too sacred to be disturbed.

In 1923, however, the world was dazzled by the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt, a global sensation that left a deep impression on a young Italian cleric named Eugenio Pacelli. When Pacelli became Pope Pius XII in 1939, he authorized a dig under the basilica, and in 1942 archeologists found a niche they believed housed Peter's remains.

Unfortunately, the fragments turned out to belong to several people. It took a couple decades before experts singled out a set of bones belonging to a man who had been 5ft 7in tall, of heavy build, and who was aged between 60 and 70 at the time of his death, all of which were consistent with traditional depictions of Peter.

Stains suggested the bones had been wrapped in a purplish, gold-threaded cloth, symbolizing a person of importance. Most intriguing, an inscription was found near the cavity that linguists reconstructed as Petros eni, which in ancient Greek could mean, "Peter is within."

That was enough for Paul VI, the pope at the time, who announced in 1968 that the bones of Peter had been identified "in a manner which we believe convincing."

Yet debate swirled then, and still does, about how reliable that identification actually is.

Logic of faith

Pope's compassion changing church?
Pope blesses disfigured man
Boy won't leave Pope's side onstage

In truth, all one can say for certain is that these are ancient human remains found in a spot devoted to Peter's memory. Since there's no DNA sample to compare, there's no way of proving whether the bones are really his.

A top Vatican official conceded as much in 2000, saying the Church is in a "very discrete and insecure position" on the bones and that references to Peter's remains are "a bit relative."

It's similar to the situation with the alleged bones of St. Paul, preserved in another Roman basilica, which were subjected to carbon-14 testing in 2007 under Pope Benedict XVI and shown to come from the first century. That test provides a date, but not an identity. In other words, we still don't know if the bones really belong to the apostle.

That's where the logic of faith takes over.

First of all, the bones Francis will venerate on Sunday spent centuries resting in the site linked to Peter's martyrdom and burial. That history makes them, at a minimum, what Catholic tradition regards as "relics by contact," meaning objects physically connected to the legacy of the saint.

Beyond that, Francis knows these bones have been hallowed by countless acts of prayer and devotion, and that like other famous relics, such as the Shroud of Turin or the Belt of Mary, they evoke awe and devotion regardless of their actual provenance. Especially for the first pope from Latin America, a continent where popular devotion is the very soul of religious experience, that mystical power is not to be dismissed.

Faith, as the Bible puts it, lies in "the evidence of things not seen." In that sense, an exhibit of the bones of St. Peter, surrounded by scientific controversy yet wrapped in a blanket of belief, is probably the perfect capstone for a "Year of Faith."

Read more: Pope to put 'St. Peter's bones' on display
Read more: Pope embraces severely disfigured man
Read more: A popular Pope, but the same old church?
Read more: Would the Mafia target Pope Francis?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John L. Allen Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT