Relics are a dime a dozen in Rome (a dime for 13 at Angelo’s Artifact’s & Souvenirs) and it sometimes seems that if all of the bone fragments attributed to one individual were collected, it would form an entire church congregation – or at least the choir. However, some are more rare than others and those belonging to the biblical apostle and historical first pope, Peter, are at the top of the list. Or perhaps were. A maintenance worker at a 1,000-year-old church in Rome found clay pots whose lids bore the names of Peter, four other early popes and four Christian martyrs. If you think that’s big news, an inscription on the wall says that somewhere in the church is a scrap of cloth from a garment worn by Mary, the mother of Jesus. Holy … something!
According to the Catholic News Agency, the clay pots were found in Santa Maria Church in Cappella in the Trastevere district of Rome near the Tiber River. The church was consecrated in 1090 by Pope Urban II, which may provide some hints to why the relics – if they’re authentic – were stored there. Urban II started the First Crusade and had to deal with a so-called anti-pope, Clement III, who was backed by Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of the Germans. With all of that going on, Urban II may have needed some off-site secure storage (some things never change) for relics and moved them from the Vatican to Santa Maria Church.
Do the relics match the names on the jars? That could be tough to prove for the popes and martyrs, but DNA tests on the bones attributed to Peter may be compared to those found during excavations under St Peter’s Basilica after WWII that were stored in a casket engraved with Greek words that translated as “Peter is here.” Tests showed they were from a man in his 60s who lived in the first century CE. That was enough for Pope Paul VI in 1968 to declare them to be the real Peter. That’s still questioned by archeologists, but a DNA match would further legitimize both samples. The bones allegedly belonging to Felix, Callixtus and Cornelius – all 3rd century popes – may be more difficult to prove.
Santa Maria Church contains many non-papal artifacts that date back to the 4th century and indications are that there’s likely more to be found, including that rumored bit of cloth attributed to Mary. Fortunately, the church has been closed to the public for 35 years due to structural issues (it’s a thousand years old, remember?), so there’s nothing stopping anyone from moving or digging like the worker who found the relics under a marble slab near a medieval altar.
Well, nothing except church politics. Pope Francis seems to be open to breaking taboos and exposing church history to the public. In 2013, he even brought out the remains of Peter — the other ones – during a church service.
Religion aside, all ancient churches, temples, spiritual gathering places and their artifacts have historical significance and, by studying times and circumstances they came from, could help us from repeating the same mistakes again.