To Whom Do the Relics of the Catholic Church’s Saints Belong?

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis’ improvised gift of St. Peter’s bone fragments to the patriarch of Constantinople requires further exploration.

The box holding the relics of St. Peter.
The box holding the relics of St. Peter. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

On June 27, the body of the Venerable Fulton Sheen was flown from New York to Peoria, Illinois. Two days later, some relics of St. Peter the Apostle were on a plane from Rome to Constantinople (Istanbul).

These two prominent transfers of relics — though entirely different in circumstances — raise an interesting question: To whom do the relics of the saints belong?

Catholics in the United States, having observed the three-year legal dispute between the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria over the earthly remains of Fulton Sheen, might have been surprised that relics of St. Peter were sent by Pope Francis to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople with less than 24 hours’ consideration.

Who gets to decide? Practically speaking, it is a legal question. But is it more than that?

In the Sheen case, the Diocese of Peoria made the argument that, because it had done the work and paid the cost of the cause for beatification, the body should be transferred to a shrine in Sheen’s hometown cathedral, where he was ordained a priest. The Archdiocese of New York, which had custody of Sheen’s body, buried in the crypt under the high altar in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, argued that it was bound to defend Sheen’s wishes. He wanted to be buried in New York.

Denied its request for the body, Peoria decided to halt the process of Sheen’s cause. No body in Peoria, no beatification.

In response, Sheen’s closest living relative, his niece, Joan Cunningham, asked a New York court to permit her to move the body of her uncle to Peoria. She is elderly and would like to see him beatified before she dies.

The New York courts repeatedly ruled in favor of Cunningham. The judges saw it as a relatively straightforward matter. The family can make a reasonable request to transfer a body. Cunningham and Peoria argued that if Sheen knew the “no body, no beatification” circumstances of today, he would agree to posthumously leave New York for Peoria.

The question before the courts was a narrow one: Was it reasonable for the niece to request the transfer? Given the circumstances, was it reasonable for his niece to think that Sheen himself would agree, despite what he wrote in his will? They answered both affirmatively.

The legal question, though, does not exhaust the broader question of who gets to decide about relics. The New York courts faced essentially a property question, with the property in question being human remains. It was decided according to the broad principles of estate law.

The Church question, though, is broader. Peoria made the case that, as the chief actor in the sainthood cause, it had a moral and ecclesial claim to the body. The court did not take up that question, but it is certainly a valid position to hold.

What about the dioceses where Sheen served — New York and Rochester? Do they not have a valid claim regarding a bishop? From an ecclesial point of view, it is not unreasonable to argue that the “next of kin” for a deceased bishop is actually his diocese. A bishop is supposed to regard himself as married to her.

In the case of a bishop — to say nothing of a candidate for beatification — it is not clear from an ecclesial point of view why the family’s wishes should be determinative. What if Cunningham wanted Sheen to be buried with his parents in the local Peoria cemetery and the cathedral?

There was no question of legality in sending the relics of St. Peter the Apostle to Constantinople. As absolute ruler of Vatican City State, Pope Francis could have made any decree that he wanted to permit their transfer. It does not appear that he did so, but simply manifested his will by doing it. And as supreme legislator for the Church universal, if canon law prevented such a transfer, the Holy Father could have amended it. So there is no legal question to sort out.

Yet other questions arise. The excavations of the Vatican necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica were one of the most sensitive decisions taken by Venerable Pius XII and his successors. The discovery of Peter’s tomb was so momentous that Pius XII requested that he himself be buried as close as possible to the holy site.

The confirmation in 1968 — as much as archaeology allows — that the very bones of St. Peter had been found by St. Paul VI was of immense significance for the very status and symbolism of St. Peter’s itself: Upon this rock I will build my Church.

The majority of the bones found were left in situ (on-site) under the high altar of St. Peter’s. But Paul VI took nine small fragments and placed them in a special reliquary, which he kept in the chapel in the pope’s private apartment. He desired that the Successor of Peter’s daily prayer be nourished by the corporeal presence of the Prince of the Apostles and that Peter’s relics would protect the pope and his ministry.

His successors maintained the custom, never removing the reliquary for public veneration. Pope Francis exposed the relics for public veneration at the conclusion of the Year of Faith in November 2013, after which they have remained in the private chapel of the papal apartment, which lies unused.

When he gave the relics to the 2019 delegation representing Bartholomew at the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome, he revealed that the idea had occurred to him the night before while praying.

“I no longer live in the Apostolic Palace, I never use this chapel, I never serve the Holy Mass here, and we have St. Peter’s relics in the basilica itself, so it will be better if they will be kept in Constantinople,” Pope Francis said. “This is my gift to the Church of Constantinople. Please take this reliquary and give it to my brother Patriarch Bartholomew. This gift is not from me; it is a gift from God.”

Given that the decision was spontaneous and executed without any apparent consultation, the Holy Father will likely provide a fuller explanation for the gift in the future. No doubt he will be asked about it on the next papal flight. He will, on that occasion, address various questions that arise about relics.

Do relics have a proper home? Relics often travel for the veneration of the faithful, but do they belong in a certain place? Could the relics of St. Peter be sent permanently to Los Angeles or Melbourne? Could the relics of St. Francis in Assisi be given to the Coptic pope in Cairo? Or must the Shroud of Turin remain permanently in Turin?

The undisputed Christian tradition is that Peter is linked forever to Rome, the new “mother and head” of all the Churches, by his martyrdom at the Vatican. Peter has no connection at all with Constantinople; indeed, when the Roman emperor shifted the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople in the fourth century, the successors of Peter pointedly remained in Rome.

Do relics have owners in the strict sense, or custodians in broad sense? Once the papal apartment and chapel was left empty, should the relics have been moved to the Santa Marta Chapel where the Holy Father offers daily Mass, or to another place where they would be venerated regularly? Is Pope Francis obliged to consider that his successors may desire the presence of the precious relics of Peter for their personal veneration and prayer? It’s possible that they might again live in the papal apartment and use the chapel.

Imagine the Holy Father had given Vladimir Putin the Pietà of Michelangelo on his recent visit, to be displayed in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, or to be conveyed as a “gift from God” to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow. It would be a bold gesture to be sure, but would it be proper? It would never happen, of course, as the Italian Republic would ensure that, the moment the sculpture left the Vatican City State, Italian authorities would prevent its removal from Italy. But if the Italian state understands itself as a custodian of precious art that it does not own, is not the Holy See the custodian of the Pietà rather than its owner?

The relics of Peter are, of course, more precious than any artwork, more precious than anything the Holy See owns, save for the relics of the Passion. Could those too be given as gifts? 

The improvised gift of Peter’s successor to Andrew’s successor needs further exploration.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.