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The Relics of St Andrew

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 14:10
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(Before It's News)

In the traditional Roman Breviary, the life of St Andrew the Apostle ends with the statement that “When Pius II was Pope, his head was brought to Rome, and placed in the basilica of St Peter.” This statement gives no idea of what an extraordinary event the translation of this relic was in the life of the Church at the time.

St Andrew is traditionally said to have died in the city of Patras on the northwestern coast of the Peloponnese, which was usually called “the Morea” in the Middle Ages. In 357, under the Emperor Constantius, his relics were brought to Constantinople, and remained there until the city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade, when they were brought to the Italian city of Amalphi; his head, however, had remained at Patras.

(Each year, for the feast of St Andrew, the reliquary kept in the crypt of the Duomo of Amalphi is taken out for a long procession though the city, and then returned to the church in a rather remarkable fashion, as seen in this video.)

In the later years of the Byzantine Empire, the Peloponnese was made into its own principality within the Empire, ruled by relatives of the Emperor, and called the “Despotate of the Morea.” (“Despotes” in Greek simply means “prince.”) The last two princes, Demetrius and Thomas, were the brothers of Constantine XII, under whom the Great City fell to the Turks in 1453. The Morea, however, was not immediately invaded, and the despotate continued to exist for seven years afterwards. Partly as a gesture to gain the Latin Church’s support for a new Crusade to drive the Turks out of Greece and the Balkans, partly to prevent the relic of the Apostle’s head from being destroyed in the by-then inevitable invasion, the despot Thomas decided to consign it to Pope Pius II.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was known as one of the great men of letters of the Italian Renaissance, although much of his writing as a layman, and most of his personal life, would hardly suggest a man fit for the clerical state, much less the Papacy. However, after years of involvement with important matters of both Church and State, he underwent a profound moral conversion; after receiving the subdeaconate in 1446, he was made a bishop about a year later, a cardinal by 1456, and elected Pope in 1458. His papal name “Pius” was chosen as partly in reference to his secular name “Aeneas”, since Virgil constantly calls the hero of his Aeneid “pius Aeneas.”

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Pope Pius II Canonizes St Catherine of Siena, from the famous Piccolomini library in the cathedral of Siena, by Pinturicchio, 1502-8. Pius was born in a small town within the territory controlled by Siena, where his family became especially important upon his election to the Papacy, and he was particularly proud of the fact that he was able to canonize a great “home-town hero” among the Saints. The proper Office of St Catherine still used to this day in the traditional Dominican Breviary was composed by him.

We may be tempted to dismiss this as no more than a clever literary reference from an age very much enamored with clever literary references, but this would be unjust. The Latin word “pius” means “one who fulfils his duty”, duty to God, to one’s country, and to one’s family, and therefore, among its many meanings are “pious, devout, conscientious, affectionate, tender, kind, good, grateful, respectful, loyal, patriotic.” Under the heading of the last of these, Pope Pius died while attempting to rally the Christian princes to the defense of Europe, as the Turks prepared to press further into the Balkans, and cross the Adriatic into Italy.

Under the heading of the first two meanings, “pious and devout”, Pope Pius devoted several pages of his autobiography to the events surrounding the reception of St Andrews’ head. After the despot Thomas had rescued the head from Patras, he brought it to Ancona, a major Italian port on the Adriatic, protected by its presence from severe storms during the crossing. Pius’ legate was sent to examine it, and declared it authentic, after which it was brought to the city of Narni, and left there for a time on account of political and military disturbances then flaring up in Italy. When these had died down, preparation was made for it come to Rome; the Pope had thought to go meet it by bringing with him the heads of Ss Peter and Paul which were kept in the Lateran, but gave up on this idea because the reliquary in which they were enclosed was too heavy to conveniently move.

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The high altar of St John in the Lateran; in the enclosed area above may be seen the reliquary containing the skulls of Ss Peter and Paul. (These are not the reliquaries which Pope Pius II found too heavy to move, which were likely destroyed during the sack of Rome in 1527, but later replacements. Image from Wikipedia.)

On Holy Monday, the Pope and his court, along with an enormous crowd of Romans, went forth from the Flaminian gate to meet the three cardinals charged with bringing the relic from Narni, close to the Milvian bridge, the site of Constantine’s famous victory so many centuries before. A large platform was erected in the middle of a field, so that all could witness the event, with two staircases on either side, and an altar in the middle. As Pius II describes the event, “as the Pope ascended the one side, weeping with joy and devotion, followed by the college (of cardinals) and the clergy, (Card.) Bessarion with the two others ascended from the other side, bearing the small arc in which the sacred head was contained, and set it on the altar… the arc was then opened, and Bessarion, taking the sacred head of the Apostle, weeping, handed it to the weeping Pope.” Pius then gives his address before the crowd.

“Thou hast finally come, most sacred and adored head of the Apostle! The furor of the Turks has driven thee from thy place; thou hast fled as an exile to thy brother. … This is kindly Rome, which thou seest nearby, dedicated by thy brother’s precious blood; the blessed Apostle Peter, thy most holy brother, and with him the vessel of election, St Paul, begot unto Christ the Lord this people which stands here. Thy nephews, all the Romans, venerate, honor and respect thee as their uncle and father, and doubt not of thy patronage in the sight of God. O most blessed Apostle Andrew, preacher of the truth, and outstanding asserter of the Trinity! With what joy dost thou fill us today, as we see before us thy sacred and venerable head, that was worthy to have the Holy Paraclete descend upon it visibly under the appearance of fire on the day of Pentecost! … These were the eyes that often saw the Lord in the flesh, this the mouth that often spoke to Christ! …

We are glad, we rejoice, we exult at thy coming, o most divine Apostle Andrew! … Enter the holy city, and be merciful to the Roman people! May thy coming bring salvation to all Christians, may thy entrance be peaceable, thy stay among us happy and favorable! Be thou our advocate in heaven, and together with the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, preserve this city, and in thy devotion take care for all the Christian people, that by thy prayers, the mercy of God may come upon us.”

The Pope then lifted up the head for all to see, and the entire crowd knelt, most of them already moved to tears by the Pope’s oration. The relic was brought to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, just inside the gates of Rome; from there, it was carried on Holy Wednesday under a golden processional canopy through the streets of the Eternal City to St Peter’s Basilica, accompanied by thousands of Romans and pilgrims.

Less than 50 years later, Pope Julius II would begin the process of tearing down the ancient basilica of the Vatican, which was then close to twelve centuries old, and in several places on the point of collapsing under the weight of its own ceiling. The new basilica, not the work of Pope Julius’ original architect, but of the genius of Michangelo, is centered upon a massive elevated dome, directly over St Peter’s tomb. The base is pierced with enormous windows to show us that St Peter is God’s privileged instrument, who opens for us the doors of Heaven with the keys which Christ gave him, and that it is through Peter that God brings us up to Himself. The four enormous pillars which support the dome are each dedicated to one of the church’s major relics, among them the head of St Andrew, which was kept in a room behind the balcony seen here above François Duquesnoy’s statue of the Apostle. (In 1966, this relic was returned to the custody of the Orthodox Church in the city of Patras.)

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The pillar of St Andrew in St Peter’s Basilica. (Image from Wikipedia)

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