First of all, the bones Francis will venerate on Sunday spent centuries resting in the site linked to Peter’s martyrdom and burial. That history makes them, at a minimum, what Catholic tradition regards as "relics by contact," meaning objects physically connected to the legacy of the saint.
Beyond that, Francis knows these bones have been hallowed by countless acts of prayer and devotion, and that like other famous relics, such as the Shroud of Turin or the Belt of Mary, they evoke awe and devotion regardless of their actual provenance. Especially for the first pope from Latin America, a continent where popular devotion is the very soul of religious experience, that mystical power is not to be dismissed.
Faith, as the Bible puts it, lies in "the evidence of things not seen." In that sense, an exhibit of the bones of St. Peter, surrounded by scientific controversy yet wrapped in a blanket of belief, is probably the perfect capstone for a "Year of Faith."
Does intense study and debate about the shroud similarly evoke awe and even devotion? Does it increase faith or get in the way. William F. Buckley, in Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith wondered, using miracles as a litmus test:
Is it perfect faith that conjures up the miracle? Why is it that no miracles have been recorded at the splendid shrine of the most wondrous of all relics, the Shroud of Turin, but a good many are said to have come to pass at the shrine of the girl-saint Bernadette Soubirous? Are miracles, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder? I do not doubt that Jesus worked his miracles; yet how long the results thereof endured, and whether what the witnesses beheld was physically ‘real,’ we have no means of knowing. Oh for a revelation!
Oh for a revelation!