VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Bones believed to belong to Saint Peter, one of the founding fathers of the Catholic Church, went on display for the first time on Sunday, as Pope Francis held a ceremony to end the "Year of Faith".
Tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered to catch a glimpse of the remains, eight fragments of bone between 2cm and 3cm long displayed on an ivory bed within a bronze chest on a pedestal in St Peter's Square.
The chest, given to pope Paul VI in 1971 and usually kept in the tiny chapel of the papal apartments, was decorated with a carving of Peter, who was a fisherman before becoming the Church's first pope.
At the start of the solemn ceremony, Pope Francis prayed before the chest, bordered by white and yellow roses, before blessing the bones with incense.
The bones have long been the object of controversy between historians and archaeologists: they were first discovered in a 1940 dig next to an ancient monument honouring Saint Peter, but ended up gathering dust in a storage box.
It was not until archaeologist Margherita Guarducci discovered graffiti near the excavated tomb reading "Petros eni", which could mean "Peter is here", that she requested tests on the fragments.
She found they belonged to a robust man who died aged between 60 and 70 years old and had been buried in a purple, gold-threaded cloth - enough to convince Paul VI to say in 1968 that Peter's bones had been identified "in a convincing manner".
With no DNA evidence to support the find, the debate over whether they really do belong to one of Jesus Christ's apostles is likely to continue, but the Vatican has said it "has no intention of opening up any argument".
"Faith, the people of God, have always believed these to be the relics of the apostle Peter, and we continue to venerate them in this way," head of the pontifical council for evangelisation Rino Fisichella said in the Vatican's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
The ceremony brought to an end the Vatican's "Year of Faith", a Benedict XVI initiative which began on October 11, 2012, to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vatican II Council, which approved key Catholic Church reforms.
The project's principle aim was to tackle the decline of religious practice in the developed world, particularly in Europe.
The Vatican said the "Year of Faith" had attracted 8.5 million pilgrims to Rome.