St. Luke - Padua


The Beloved Physician


It all began in 1992, with a request from the Orthodox Metropolitan of Thebes to the Bishop of Padua concerning the Evangelist’s relics. This gave rise to a series of studies that confirm the authenticity of the bones preserved in Santa Giustina as well as the historicity of the tradition




Luke, the man whom Paul of Tarsus called “the beloved physician,” the author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, who more than anyone else was able to describe compassion and mercy for the wretched and the afflicted, rests in Padua. The Benedictine Basilica of Santa Giustina, an ancient church facing the large town square called the Prato della Valle, has housed for a thousand years a leaden box containing the skeleton of a man who died in old age. After two years of interdisciplinary studies and research commissioned by the diocese, these relics have been attributed to the historian whom Dante called the scriba mansuetudinis Christi [scribe of Christ’s gentleness].


A strange request

In October 1992, the Bishop of Padua, Antonio Mattiazzo, was handed a letter in Greek, written by the Orthodox Metropolitan of Thebes, Hyeronimus, asking him for “a significant fragment of the relics of St. Luke to be placed on the site where the holy tomb of the Evangelist is located and venerated today.” According to an ancient tradition, Luke’s tomb is venerated in Thebes. In the Monarchian Prologue, from the end of the second century, we read: “Luke from Syria, by birth Antiochian, by profession a physician, a disciple of the apostles, later was a follower of Paul until Paul’s martyrdom, serving God without fault. Then, not having ever had a wife or children, at age 74 [according to another variant, 84], he died in Boeotia full of the Holy Spirit. As the Gospels of Matthew, in Judea, and Mark, in Italy, had already been written, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit he wrote this gospel in the area of Achaia, he too revealing at the beginning that the others had already been written earlier....” Similar information is found in the Anti-Marcionite Prologue from the same period.
Bishop Mattiazzo jumped out of his seat. How was it possible for his Orthodox brother to be so sure that the remains of St. Luke were in Padua? The cult of the Evangelist in the city of St. Anthony has been practically unknown in recent decades, or in any case limited to a small circle. Mattiazzo decided to act. Before fulfilling the request of the Metropolitan of Thebes, he wanted to study the tradition more thoroughly and subject it to the investigation of science. The examination began in 1998 and concluded in 2000, with a surprising result that confirms the ancient tradition. In recent weeks, the Diocese of Padua dedicated an important international meeting to the discovery. On that occasion, University of Padua anatomopathologist Vito Terribile Wiel Marin, who coordinated the research, stated, “While before investigation was begun it was thought, on the basis of historical data in our possession, that the relics of St. Luke were in Padua, the sum of the results of all the investigations allows us to say that this hypothesis is supported by a very high level of probability. Science never claims to be 100% sure, but we can nonetheless speak of a result which is very close to certitude.”


A very ancient cult

In 1998 when the experts of the diocese and the friars of Santa Giustina removed the 400-year-old seals from the large lead casket, which measured 76 by 16 inches, 20 inches deep, and weighed 280 pounds–, they found the bones of a complete skeleton (with the exception of the skull), protected by a shroud of transparent white cloth, which it is thought was used for the last exhibition of the relic to the faithful in 1562. The bones attributed to the saint were mixed with some ribs and vertebrae of small rodents, a few shells, vegetable residue (perhaps the remains of flowers dropped by the faithful), a terra cotta bowl, and some small jars containing parchments and coins. On the bottom of the casket were more coins, 34 in all, the oldest of which dates to A.D. 299. There were also a slab and a plaque witnessing to reconnaissances of the relics made in 1463 and 1562; these reiterate the attribution of the remains to the author of the third Gospel. Apart from the right ulna and left astragalus (a small bone in the foot), the headless skeleton is complete and perfectly preserved. The anthropologist Mariantonia Capitanio, of the University of Padua, has explained that the body “has never been buried in an underground tomb, but always in containers that could guarantee a lasting preservation even when it was moved from one place to another.” This testifies to a very early cult, attested to also by the trace of myrtle in the casket, which was used especially in ancient funeral rites and which, among other things, would place the time of death between the late spring and early summer, the season when the plant is in bloom. And too, the large size of the lead casket makes it clear that this was not made to hold the Evangelist’s relics, but his body. An interesting confirmation comes from Thebes itself: the marble sepulcher venerated as the tomb of St. Luke perfectly contains the lead casket, which can be inserted into it to the millimeter.


An old and sick Syrian

The research has shown that the bones belonged to a Syrian. This conclusion was reached by the geneticist Guido Barbujani after an analysis of the DNA. The skeleton belongs to a man who died in old age, presumably between 70 and 85 (which is perfectly in line with the information in the two Prologues), about 5 feet 4 inches tall, and of a stocky build. Dr. Terribile Wiel Marin has found in the bones a serious form of osteoporosis, arthrosis of the spine, and considerable wearing down of the teeth. The curvature of the ribs indicates the presence of pulmonary emphysema. Among the most interesting results of the research is the carbon-14 dating, carried out in two different laboratories, in Tucson, Arizona, and Oxford, England. Both tests show that the skeleton belongs to someone who died between 130 and 400 A.D. This coincides with the tradition, which places the death of the Evangelist in the early decades of the second century.
Finally, studies by the palynologist Arturo Paganelli on the pollen present in the lead casket and on the bones of the pelvis have established that these are pollens typical of southern Italy and particularly of the Mediterranean basin, which would confirm that the body and casket originated in that area and once again coincide with the tradition that Luke died and was buried in Boeotia.


The mystery of the skull

The bones in Padua, as we said earlier, are missing the head. And precisely this “lack” gave further confirmation of the authenticity of the relics. Historical documents show that in 1354, Emperor Charles IV took the skull from the skeleton in Padua to Prague with him, where it is to this day in the Cathedral of St. Vitus and where it continues to be venerated. Bishop Mattiazzo asked Cardinal Miloslav Vlk for permission to examine the relic. In September 1998, the Deacon of Prague Cathedral and an expert paleontologist crossed Europe with the relic to bring it to Padua. For three days, the scholars coordinated by Dr. Terribile Wiel Marin examined the skull to see if it fit with the atlas (the topmost vertebra of the neck) of the skeleton preserved in Santa Giustina. “Their correspondence seemed unmistakable to me, to Dr. Capitanio, and to Dr. Emanuel Vlcek who came from Prague,” the professor said. The fit between skull and atlas is considered to be “highly specific,” like a key fitting into a lock; it is completely unthinkable that another skull could fit the first vertebra. Moreover, the skull was seen to be dolichocephalic, that is to say, elongated towards the back and thin. This is a skull shape that is highly compatible with the population of Antioch in Syria during the first and second centuries, but not with the population of that same geographical region in the year 1000 and even less with the people there today. Thus this further confirms the tradition.


St. Luke’s journey

How did these relics–which after this discovery are now the most important attributed to an evangelist–come to Padua? A tradition, confirmed by the testimony of St. Jerome, says that the casket with the bones was taken to Constantinople during the time of Emperor Constans (fourth century) and placed in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles. From here it was later taken to Padua. According to some scholars, this would have happened after the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders. But more recent studies, carried out by Monsignor Claudio Bellinati, director of the historical archives of Padua, reveal that the presence of the bones is recorded in that city already in 1177, when the lead casket–which because of the barbarian invasions had been hidden in the cemetery of Santa Giustina with all the other bodies preserved in the church–was found and placed once again inside the church. The document found by Monsignor Bellinati refutes the hypothesis that it was the Crusaders who brought Luke’s relics to Padua. “The bones could have arrived much earlier,” the scholar said, “in the eighth century, during the period of the Iconoclastic Controversy.” Tradition claims, in fact, that a priest named Urius, custodian of the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, took with him to Padua the remains of St. Luke, those attributed to St. Matthias, and an icon of the Virgin, which are still present in Santa Giustina.


The rib closest to the heart

A month ago, when preparations for the meeting and for the announcement of the attribution were already in place, Bishop Mattiazzo took a rib from St. Luke’s skeleton, the one closest to the heart, and flew to Thebes. The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, the Vatican Secretariat of State, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity had already for some time given the authorization to the Bishop of Padua to satisfy Metropolitan Hyeronimus’s moving request to have a significant relic to venerate in the empty tomb. In this way, the scriba mansuetudinis Christi, nineteen centuries after his death, provided the occasion for a step forward on the path to ecumenism.


The Fascination of the Face of Christ
John Paul II sent a message to the Bishop of Padua on the occasion of the international meeting announcing the attribution of the relics to the author of the third Gospel. His words are very moving, as they capture the beauty of the Evangelist’s narrative and testify to the dynamism of the encounter with Christianity: not a volunteer effort, not the result of indoctrination, not the repetition of the right formulas, but coming upon something fascinating, a beauty that comes to meet you, wraps you in itself, and without any merit on your part gives you the strength to follow. “For Luke,” the Pope wrote, “being Christian means following Jesus on the path He is traveling. It is Jesus Himself who takes the initiative and calls one to follow Him, and He does this in a decisive, unmistakable way, thus demonstrating His identity as Someone completely out of the ordinary, His mystery as the Son who knows and reveals the Father.” “At the origin of the decision to follow Jesus,” John Paul II continues, “is the fundamental choice in favor of His person. If one has not been fascinated by Christ’s face, it is impossible to follow Him faithfully and constantly, because Jesus walks on an impervious path, He sets extremely stringent conditions, and He heads toward a paradoxical destiny, that of the Cross.” “We must abandon ourselves to the power of the Spirit,” the Pope explains, “who is able to infuse light and above all love for Christ; we must open ourselves to the inner fascination that Jesus works on hearts that yearn to be authentic, shunning all half-measures. This is certainly difficult for man, but it becomes possible with the grace of God.”


The Scribe and his Sources

The shepherds “hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds said to them. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Lk 2:18-18) The twelve-year-old Jesus “replied, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he meant. He went down with them then and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority. His mother stored up all these things in her heart”. (Lk 2:49-51) These two delicate but evocative indications have led Abbot Giuseppe Ricciotti–author of the insuperable and highly successful volume, Vita di Gesù Cristo [Life of Jesus Christ]–to believe that precisely the Mother of the Savior was one of Luke’s sources. To be sure, it is not known if the Syrian physician knew Mary of Nazareth personally or if he received this information through another person. It is. However, quite clear that certain details of the birth and childhood of Jesus could have been recounted only by her, and this is why Luke twice suggests, carefully and discreetly, the authoritative source of his information.
A late tradition, not found before Theodore Lector (6th century), presents Luke as the painter of a portrait of Mary, but the true portrait of the Virgin is what emerges from the Evangelist’s pages. St. Luke, Paul’s companion, did not personally know Jesus. When he set out to write his Gospel, Mark and Matthew had already written theirs. Luke, as he himself states in his prologue, wanted to go “over the whole story from the beginning” of the life of Christ, thus to write an “ordered account” of what already existed, but with new information from “eyewitnesses,” and to connect the Gospel story chronologically with contemporary secular history. In Luke’s Gospel, about half his narrative is found only in his book and not in the other synoptic Gospels. These additions include Jesus’ seven miracles, about twenty parables, and above all the story of the birth and childhood of the Savior.
The Evangelist’s originality–he is the most attentive to reporting the merciful kindness of Jesus toward the poor, the sick, sinners, and the afflicted–emerges especially in the central section of his Gospel, where he tells of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem: the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man, the Pharisee, and the Publican. Several times Luke repeats that the Good News is for the little ones, while he dwells on a description of Jesus’ gestures of forgiveness and welcoming. Luke is the only one, for example, to tell the story of the prostitute who burst into the house of the Pharisee who had invited the Nazarene to a meal, “weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.” (Lk 7:38) It is only due to Luke that we know the story of the Good Thief who is forgiven and welcomed by the dying Jesus, and thus manages in an instant to “steal” Paradise.