A stone from Saint Paul's tomb is coming to the apostle's U.S. national shrine, as a gift from Pope Benedict XVI to the Church in Minnesota.
“I think it will bring great blessings to our country and to all the pilgrims who come here,” said Father Joseph R. Johnson, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul, describing the “bond of spiritual affinity” that will link his cathedral to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome.
Fr. Johnson told EWTN News that he received the gift in Rome this past March, and carried it back personally to the city named for the saint. Its acquisition links Minnesota's capital and its archdiocese with the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome, an important pilgrimage destination for Catholics and other Christians.
“I have to tell you, the first thought was fear,” Fr. Johnson said, describing the feeling of transporting the stone from Saint Paul's tomb on a transatlantic flight.
“I kept it on my lap on the plane the whole way back,” the priest recalled. “I knew what a treasure I had with me, so I really wanted to be a good steward.”
Only one period of public veneration is currently scheduled, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on May 20 at the cathedral. It is hoped that a permanent and secure location for the sacred item will be arranged in time for the opening of the Year of Faith in October 2012.
The city of St. Paul's Catholic cathedral was designated as the saint's national shrine in 2009, during the Church's Year of Saint Paul.
At the close of that year, in June 2009, Pope Benedict announced that the traditional site of the apostle's burial had been studied by scientists, who found traces of purple cloth, incense, protein, and chalk substances.
A group of independent researchers dated bone fragments in the tomb to the first century. The Pope expressed “profound emotion” at the findings, which “would seem to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition which claims that these are the mortal remains of Saint Paul.”
Sealed in a clear box with wax and lead seals, the stone received by Minnesota's cathedral dates from a later period between the 5th and 6th centuries. During this time, Popes St. Leo the Great and St. Gregory the Great oversaw further adornments to St. Paul's place of burial.
During 2012, Catholic bishops from across the U.S. are making their traditional “ad limina” visits to Rome, named for the Latin phrase meaning “to the thresholds of the Apostles.” Pilgrimages to the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul are an essential part of the bishops' journeys, made every five years.
“They're actually required to go and offer Mass at the tomb of St. Peter, and at the tomb of St. Paul,” Fr. Johnson said, describing the bishops' twice-a-decade obligation. “There's a special book that they sign there, attesting to the fact that they made this pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Paul.”
The Church also ascribes certain specific spiritual benefits to the act of visiting St. Paul's tomb in a spirit of prayer and devotion. When Rev. Johnson returned with the relic in March, he also carried a decree promising the same benefits to those who venerate the sacred stone in the Minnesota cathedral.
“Pilgrims receive all of the graces, the indulgences, that would be obtained by going all the way to St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome,” he said.