From Bari, Italy, to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, and back
When Pope Francis and Moscow Patriarch Kirill met in Havana, Cuba, in February 2016, it was a most historic meeting. It was the first such meeting since the Great Schism forming the two branches of Christianity in 1054 (the separation of the Eastern Church [Orthodox] from the Western Church [Roman Catholic]). At this historic meeting Pope Francis gave permission to lend some of the relics (bones) of St. Nicholas to Russia. For the first time Orthodox believers in Russia would be able to venerate one of their most important saints in their own country. Permission was granted because Russians have such great love for Saint Nicholas and making a pilgrimage to Bari, which thousands have done, to venerate the relics is both difficult and costly.
Saint Nicholas is one of the most revered saints in the Russian Orthodox Church in whose tradition saints’ relics are of particular importance. The relics, a rib fragment, will be flown on a chartered plane Sunday, May 21st, 2017. The relics will be carried in a special jeweled reliquary specially created for this purpose. A representative of the Moscow Patriarchate said, “This is an unprecedented event. These relics have never before left Italy.”
“Bari has shown once again that it can be a bridge between East and West, ” said Bari mayor Antonio Decaro. “At a time when selfishness seems to prevail in the world, this is a message of peace.”
Dr. Francesco Introna, director of the Institute of Forensic and Insurance Medicine, Bari University, described how the fragment was retrieved. The crypt is below sea level and the bones are under three stone slabs that were installed when they were interred in the 11th century. There are several small holes in the slabs that are used to extract the holy moisture (manna) exuded by the relics and collected during the festival on May 9th. The slabs have only been removed once, in 1953 when the crypt was repaired. So, the fragment needed to be removed through the small holes.
Dr. Introna said the decision as to what fragment would be retrieved was made on the spot. “We didn’t know what specifically we could take out of there,” he said. “We made the decision right on the spot. The holes, 6 centimeters in diameter, provide the only access to the relics. We needed laparoscopic equipment that is used in healthcare now for this job.” A professional surgeon helped with the retrieval.
“Along with it, we had to reach down to the depth of almost one meter—something that never happens during regular laparoscopic surgical procedures,” Dr. Introna said. “First we examined the bones with the aid of a microscopic video camera and then selected the rib in a hope it would get through the hole and wouldn’t be damaged along the way. This is the biggest relic that we could retrieve.”
The relics will be taken to Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Patriarch Kirill will bless them in a liturgy that Sunday evening. Thousands of Orthodox believers are expected to come to venerate the relics while they are in Russia. They will be at the cathedral from May 22 until July 12 and at Alexander Nevsky Monastery, St. Petersburg, from July 13-28, 2017. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk said, “The bringing of the relics of St. Nicholas to Moscow is a great event for many believers who will come to venerate the great saint.”
Relics of St. Nicholas entrusted to Russian Orthodox Church ahead of journey to Moscow (2:10)
Relics of St. Nicholas leave Bari in first leg of 3,000 km journey to Moscow (2:52)
Moved for first time in 1000 years, St. Nicholas’ relics arrive in Moscow (2:18)
When the plane reached Vnukovo airport, the glass-topped ark with the relic—a 4-inch piece of the ninth left rib—was venerated by a long line of pilgrims who bowed and kissed the ark. State TV news channel Rossiya-24 devoted hours of live coverage to the departure and arrival of the relic.
“In the contemporary world, Catholics and Orthodox are called to work together fraternally in proclaiming the Good News of salvation, to testify together to the moral dignity and authentic freedom of the person, ‘so that the world may believe,’” said Patriarch Kirill. “Without any doubt, the bringing to Russia of the relics of the great man of God who is venerated in East and West is a vivid example of our common witness to the Christian faith.”
“I believe more than a million people are sure to come,” said Roman Lunkin, Senior Researcher and Head of Religious and Social Studies, Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said, “while the total number of believers paying homage to the relics … could even reach several million.”
On just the first day, more than 25,000 people came to venerate the relic. They were counted by metal detection gates installed at the cathedral entrance. The line stretched more than two miles along the embankment of the Moskva river. One woman said, “I want to touch the relics, to ask for health for my children, for my relatives. I want health and peace on earth. Nothing else.” The doors were closed at 9 pm and people continued to queue through the night until the doors opened again in the morning.
All the Moscow underground trains, about 20 lines, had advertisements telling passengers to get off at the Frunzenskaya station, several kilometres from the cathedral, as this was the place to join the 8-9 hour queue to the cathedral.
As visitors approach the golden ark, they make the sign of the cross and bend over the ark. Some put their foreheads on the transparent top, then kiss the glass, and move on. As they leave, they are given free mini St Nicholas icons that have been blessed by Patriarch Kirill. Many bring babies and young children, some from hospital. As one mother says, “I want to give this a chance. Because I really believe in miracles.”
In the first three weeks, more than 300,000 people stood in line up to ten hours to venerate the relic. One woman leaving, said, “It was tough, but you got a chance to think about your life, all the problems and the sins you have committed.” The line averages three kilometers long and between 18,000 and 48,000 people come each day. Average wait time is about nine hours.
When the relic was moved to Holy Trinity Cathedral, Alexander Nevsky Lavra, in St. Petersburg, 66,500 faithful came in the first three days.
Buses brought pilgrims on the first Saturday from Novgorod, Staraya Rus, Petrozavodsk, Velikie Luki, Pskov, Krasnodar, and Leningrad region, and Riga and Minsk, too. Sunday buses were from Estonia, Pskov, Novgorod, and Perm. Queue waiting time averaged about 2.5 hours, and 20 more minutes inside the cathedral.
After the hours of waiting, pilgrims approach the ark and kiss the top before volunteers in green aprons whisk them away. The pilgrims have a couple seconds with the relic. One pilgrim said, “It is a pilgrimage. And pilgrimage—it’s a sort of spiritual experience that you have to overcome yourself. You have to do something that is not maybe physically comfortable, but it brings forth some spiritual fruit.”
More than a million Orthodox faithful visited the relic in Moscow. The Russian Patriarchate press office said they were 60% women and 40% men and that more than half came from outside Moscow.
After the conclusion of the visit (from May 21 to July 28), when over two and a half million Russian believers had venerated the relics, the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, said:
I know that the relics of St. Nicholas were received in Russia with a special spiritual uplift, and that for more than two months an impressive number of clergymen and believers in Moscow and St. Petersburg venerated the relics. There is no doubt that this event and other similar initiatives, which can be called the “ecumenism of the saints”, give an opportunity to fully feel what already unites Christians. This was not only an important event in the spiritual life of believers, but also an example for other initiatives that strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation in various fields.
Cardinal Kurt Koch led the delegation that went to Russia to escort the St. Nicholas relic on its return to Bari. He said that while Christians on earth may be divided into different churches and denominations, in heaven their saints are united. And that Catholics and Orthodox believe when they venerate a saint, they are giving glory to God. He continued, saying,
The veneration of the saints is divine worship and adoration of God in his holiness and in his coming, which sanctifies human beings. The saints are like a prism that reflects the light of God’s holiness in different chromatic tones and refractions.
After the relics are back in place in Bari, he said, “our task will continue to be that of remaining faithful to praying for unity, continuing to ask for the intercession of the saints. In fact, our churches’ saints, who already are united in heaven, are our best intercessors and companions on the ecumenical journey and can help us make Christian unity a reality.”
- Russia thrilled to get Saint Nicholas relics from Italy by Chloe Arnold, BBC News, May 20, 2017.
- Relics of St. Nicholas to be venerated in Russia, CatholicCulture.org, May 4, 2017.
- 930 years of waiting: fragment of St Nicholas’ relics to arrive to Russia from Italy, TASS, May 21, 2017
- Ark bearing popular Saint Nicholas’ relics comes to Moscow by Jim Heintz, Associated Press, May 21, 2017, StarTribune
- Relics of saint who inspired legend of Father Christmas leave Italy for first time in 1,000 years, The Telegraph, May 22, 2017
- Millions of Russian believers may pay homage to relics of St. Nicholas, Russia Beyond the Headlines, May 22, 2017
- Patriarch Kirill meets with Italian delegation accompanying the relics of St. Nicholas, Patriarchal Press Service, The Russian Orthodox Church, May 22, 2017
- Thousands throng to bow to St Nicholas relics in Moscow, Reuters, May 23, 2017
- Over 25,000 believers come to venerate St. Nicholas’ relics in just one day, Russia Beyond the Headlines, May 23, 2017
- The 20-hour queue: How long will a Russian wait to see a relic? Russia Beyond, May 24, 2017
- Why St Nicholas works wonders for Russians, BBC News, May 28, 2017
- More than 300,000 Russian queue to see relics of St Nicholas, Associated Press, Catholic Herald, June 6, 2017
- Some 500,000 pilgrims bow to St. Nicholas remains as 3 km line forms outside the Moscow Cathedral, Interfax Religion, June 8, 2017
- People queue up for kilometeres to see the relics of Saint Nicholas, a long wait and sudden joy, Malaysia Online Herald, July 5, 2017
- In St. Petersburg, the relics of St. Nicholas in three days bowed 6,5 thousand people, Russia News Today, July 16, 2017
- Russian Orthodox Believers Flock to Cathedral To See Saint’s Remains, by Lucien Kim, transcript, NPR, July 21, 2017
- The Bones of Affection and Unity: St. Nick is Visiting Russia, by Ines Murzaku, National Catholic Reporter, July 24, 2017
- Relics of St Nicholas return to Bari after Russian Tour, Vatican Radio, July 28, 2017
- Communion of saints pray for Christian unity, cardinal tells Russians, by Cindy Wooden, CatholicPhilly.com (Catholic News Service), July 28, 2017
- 2.5 million Russians venerated St. Nicholas’ relics; patriarch thanks Pope, Catholic World News, August 2, 2017
- Cardinal Parolin: Dialogue of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches to help them feel unity, Tass, August 20, 2017
Photos: courtesy of Father Marcus Vankan and the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy, unless otherwise noted