Jul. 11, 2019

The story of an historic gift from Pope Francis “It’s a step forward towards unity”

Archbishop Job of Telmessos with a gift from Pope Francis. Photo: Ecumenical Patriarchate

11 July 2019

Archbishop Job of Telmessos, who serves as permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the World Council of Churches (WCC), met with the WCC News and describes receiving an extraordinary gift from Pope Francis on 29 June.

Q: What gift did Pope Francis give to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on 29 June?

Archbishop Job: Something very special, precious, and totally unexpected! On 29 June, the feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church, after the Papal Mass, when I went down with His Holiness Pope Francis to the Tomb of St Peter to pray with him in front of it, he said to me: “Wait for me after. I have a gift to give you for the Church of Constantinople. I thought of it last night during prayer.” After a quick stop at the sacristy, Pope Francis said to me: “Let’s go”. Sitting in his simple little Ford, I asked: “Holiness, where are we going?” “To the Pontifical Palace. The gift is there,” replied Pope Francis. Having arrived there, we stopped in the chapel of the Pope. I thought he either wanted to show it to me, or to stop to say a prayer... but he explained to me: “This chapel was set by the late Pope Paul VI. He brought some relics of St Peter here from the basilica. I don’t live here. I don’t use the chapel. During prayer last night
, I thought to myself: these holy relics would be better in Constantinople, at the Phanar. Here are they. Take them with you. Give them to my brother His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. This gift is not from me, it’s from God”.

Do you view the presentation of this gift as an extraordinary moment in history?

Archbishop Job: Yes, of course! The presentation of this gift is indeed an extraordinary moment in history since the relics of St Peter have always been in Rome, under the basilica, and were never taken or given anywhere else. Actually, they were discovered in the 1950s, when archeological excavations under the basilica were conducted by Margherita Guardacci. Bones were found in a small niche near a wall with the Greek inscription: “Petros eni”: “Peter is here”. The scientific analysis showed that the remains belong to a man who lived in the beginning of the first century, was of a solid body constitution and died at an advanced age. On them were found fragments of purple fabric with golden thread — a testimony of the particular respect or veneration for the buried person. The results of the research have allowed us to state that the remains found under the basilica were those of St Peter and this was officially declared by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Most of the relics were left in the small
niche where they were buried for centuries, but nine fragments where taken by Pope Paul VI who ordered them placed in a bronze reliquary and stored them in the papal chapel. This unique reliquary was the only one ever exposed to the public in Rome on some occasions, like in 2013, for the closing of the year of faith. And this is precisely the reliquary that was given by Pope Francis to the Church of Constantinople!

In what ways does this signify the Pope’s commitment to advancing ecumenical dialogue?

Archbishop Job: The gesture of Pope Francis is very generous and prophetic. It’s a step forward towards unity. We must remember that the Roman Catholic Church often considered its primacy in link with the presence of Peter, the chief of the Apostles in Rome. By coming to the Church of Constantinople, his relics gathered with the relics of the Holy Apostle Andrew, the elder brother of St Peter and considered as the founder of the Church of Constantinople. The relics of the two brothers now united in Constantinople is a prophetic sign for the unity of the two sister churches. Of course, this does not mean that the “ecumenism of the saints” replaces or takes over the “dialogue of truth” that is being conducted by the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the two churches since 1980, which remains essential for the restoration of communion between the two churches. But we, Catholics and Orthodox, do believe that the Holy Apostles intercede in front of our Lord and
Savior Christ for the unity of the divided Christians!

Historically, how is the date - 29 June, or the feast of St Peter and Paul - special between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Holy See?

Archbishop Job: Following the uplifting of the anathemas of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople in 1965, the late Pope Paul VI and the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras established in 1969 the tradition of exchanging formal annual delegations at the respective feasts of the founders of the two churches: for the feast of St Peter and Paul on 29 June in Rome, for the feast of St Andrew on 30 November in Constantinople. Each feast is referred as the thronal feast of each respective see. The exchange of delegations is always an occasion for brotherly gathering and informal exchange of information. This initiative was the prelude to the creation of the joint international commission for theological dialogue between the two churches during the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Phanar in 1979.

What will happen with the gift?

Archbishop Job: After their transfer from Rome to Constantinople on 29 June, the relics of St Peter were exposed for the veneration of the faithful during a solemn Divine Liturgy presided by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the occasion of the feast of the Holy Twelve Apostles, on 30 June, in the church of the Holy Apostles in Feriköy in Istanbul. After the liturgy, the reliquary was taken to the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the Phanar in Istanbul where they will be kept in the patriarchal church.