At a mass that marked the end of the Vatican's year-long celebration of the Christian faith, Pope Francis on Sunday unveiled for the first time bone fragments believed to be that of Apostle Peter.
The pope prayed before a jewel box that carried nine pieces of bone – each measuring about an inch long – inside a bronze display case kept beside the altar during the mass at St. Peter's Square on Sunday, according to The Associates Press.
Francis clutched the case in his arms for several minutes after his homily at the mass that was attended by around 1,200 cardinals, patriarchs and archbishops from around the world.
It was Pope Paul VI who had announced in 1968 that the fragments found in the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica belonged to Peter, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, "in a way that we can consider convincing."
Catholics consider Peter to be the first pope.
The bone fragments were found during excavations after the death of Pope Pius XI in 1939. Pius had asked to be buried in the grottoes where dozens of popes are buried. Archaeologists discovered there a funerary monument with a casket with an engraving in Greek reading "Petros eni," or "Peter is here."
Some archaeologists have disputed the finding.
However, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the head of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, says the focus is not on the verifiability of the claim.
"It's not as if pilgrims who go to the altar (of Peter's tomb) think that in that moment in which they profess their faith that below them are the relics of Peter, or of another or another still," was quoted as saying last week. "They go there to profess the faith."
"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 veteran Vatican correspondent Bruno Bartoloni in his 2012 book, The Ears of the Vatican.
"It has finally been decided to produce the bones for the public, but these relics have a low profile at the Vatican," U.K.'s The Telegraph newspaper quoted Marco Ansaldo, a Vatican expert at Italy's La Repubblica, as saying. "It seems clear the Vatican is not yet sure about the relics and is therefore rather embarrassed," he said.