The Vatican publicly unveiled a handful of bone fragments purportedly belonging to St. Peter on Sunday, reviving the scientific debate and tantalizing mystery over whether the relics found in a shoe box truly belong to the first pope.
The nine pieces of bone sat nestled like rings in a jewel box inside a bronze display case on the side of the altar during a Mass commemorating the end of the Vatican's yearlong celebration of the Christian faith. It was the first time they had ever been exhibited in public.
No pope has ever definitively declared the fragments to belong to the Apostle Peter, but Pope Paul VI in 1968 said fragments found in the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica were "identified in a way that we can consider convincing."
The relics were discovered during excavations begun under St. Peter's Basilica in the years following the 1939 death of Pope Pius XI, who had asked to be buried in the grottoes where dozens of popes are buried.
During the excavations, archaeologists discovered a funerary monument with a casket built in honor of Peter and an engraving in Greek that read "Petros eni," or "Peter is here."
The scholar of Greek antiquities, Margherita Guarducci, who had deciphered the engraving continued to investigate and learned that one of the basilica workers had been given the remains found inside the casket and stored them in a shoe box kept in a cupboard. She reported her findings to Paul VI who later proclaimed that there was a "convincing" argument that the bones belonged to Peter.
Top Vatican Jesuits and other archaeologists strongly denied the claim, but had little recourse.
"No Pope had ever permitted an exhaustive study, partly because a 1,000-year-old curse attested by secret and apocalyptic documents, threatened anyone who disturbed the peace of Peter's tomb with the worst possible misfortune," wrote Vatican correspondent Bruno Bartoloni.
In 1971, Paul VI was given an urn containing the relics, which were kept inside the private papal chapel inside the Apostolic Palace and exhibited for the pope's private veneration each June 29, for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Sunday marked the first time they were shown in public.